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Stick solar energy mandates “where the sun don’t shine”

Right Angles column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on March 19, 2013

A growing number of municipalities across the United States are dictating minimum percentages for solar generated energy in residential and commercial buildings. Proponents of mandates, which infringe on private property rights, insist that solar must replace hydrocarbon energy sources like natural gas. Ostensibly, diminished individual liberty is justified by the greater good of economic savings and reduced environmental impacts. Stick these claims “where the sun don’t shine”. Solar energy is not a “magic bullet” substitute for natural gas and should not be forced on American families and businesses.

Current solar technology has practical constraints. Buildings have limited roof space for installation of south-facing panels. And what happens when the neighbors’ trees are taller than your building? Solar advocates’ solution to such problems is forcing building owners to invest in offsite solar power facilities. They don’t mention that it takes about 10 acres of solar panels to produce an average of 1 megawatt of electricity, which can power about 750 U.S. households when the sun is high in the sky.

For comparison, a single natural gas well can easily provide the fuel to generate more than 5 megawatts around the clock. In most cases, solar systems are impractical without backup and supplemental electricity sources. That means natural gas demand will increase proportionally to expanded solar power capacity.

Unlike natural gas, solar energy is only available when the sun is shining. On average, solar systems are fully functional about 6 to 8 hours a day. Even a small-scale solar system that supplies only a fraction of a building’s electricity will probably need 10 to 15 lead acid storage batteries.

Solar energy is not without economic and environmental impacts

Sunlight may be free, but solar panels and battery banks are expensive. On average, the true cost of solar generated electricity is about 3 times that of electricity from natural gas. Solar panel costs have dropped over the last several years, but so have natural gas prices. Hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling technology have made North American natural gas more abundant and affordable than ever.

Solar energy simply can’t compete in the free market without government subsidies from taxpayer dollars. Accordingly, states like Colorado stipulate that power companies must produce a minimum amount of power from “renewable sources”. At the local level, council members are making rooftop solar panels a requirement instead of an option. This makes energy more expensive with negligible effect on the local environment.

Activists in the United States call solar technology green while ignoring what happens in the global supply chain. Solar panels and batteries are constructed of earth minerals that require large-scale mining. Photovoltaic panels contain silver, nickel, copper, and titanium dioxide. Major components of batteries are lithium, cadmium, and lead. These materials are hazardous to humans, as well as nature.

The majority of these rare earth materials come from mines in China, Russia, and South America where regulations are lax. Each ton of mined rare earth material produces about 2,000 tons of mine tailings. The adverse effect on ecosystems, watersheds, and air quality is profound.  In contrast, natural gas drilling and fracking in the United States is highly regulated with a proven record of safety.

Here’s another irony. Mining, manufacturing, and transportation of solar components require vast amounts of hydro-carbon energy. Factories depend on uninterruptable power. Trucks and equipment require fuel. Truth is, affordable solar energy is a function of low-cost natural gas, coal, and oil. Panels don’t get built, delivered, and installed without it.

Perhaps communities in America should be legislating minimum levels of domestic natural gas production. It makes as much sense as solar mandates, but I doubt it will happen. Solar requirements are driven by political agendas, not facts and logic.

Mandating technologies hinders real energy solutions

Natural gas and solar technologies both belong in our nation’s energy portfolio. Natural gas allows solar to increase U.S. electricity production. Expansion of solar energy increases the need for natural gas. These energy sources have the potential to be symbiotic. Mandating the use of either is counterproductive.

Americans should not view natural gas and solar as competitive energy technologies. Every level of government must stop using subsidies and mandates to pick solar as the winner. Allow liberty and free markets to flourish and unbridled American entrepreneurialism will generate hybrid energy solutions that truly save dollars and the environment.

James D. Kellogg is a professional engineer, the author of the thriller novel E-Force, and an outdoor adventure enthusiast in western Colorado. Visit to learn more.

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