Banner
    The 1% Love Solar Subsidies Paid By The Other 99%
    By Hank Campbell | October 30th 2011 04:16 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

    View Hank's Profile
    The 99%, those people protesting current government and corporate greed, think banks are the problem, yet they don't seem to realize banks aren't the biggest problem - the government that enables them and other kooky schemes is.  Likewise, Hollywood capitalists are having a field day joining in on calls to make changes - unless it is to their incomes.

    While Kanye West, one of those rich people (worth $400 million), showing up at Occupy Wall Street wearing a $350 shirt and gold chains to show support might seem stupid or even ironic, in reality he has a lot to thank poor people for, as do a lot of other millionaires in California.

    If you are rich and in California and care about solar energy enough to do something, there is a pretty good chance the $3.3 billion all Californians have tacked onto their utility bills to bolster 'clean' energy is really just going into the pockets of you, just like those other tax breaks the 99% say are a bad thing.

    Glenn McCoy Belleville News-Democrat
    Glenn McCoy Belleville News-Democrat

    Residential solar power has always been something of a placebo for people who want to rationalize they are not part of the problem and want to feel all science-y about it.  On my last house I had solar panels and it took more electricity to pump the water onto the roof than I saved even heating the pool.  It's just bad technology and I have argued early and often we should be funding basic research to make solar worthwhile rather than subsidizing companies and efforts we know will fail 100% of the time - Solyndra is just the tip of the scandal iceberg that will be coming in 2012.  The reality is that solar power is dreadful and we would need to build giant solar plants every day for the next 50 years to meet just our energy demands today.

    Why is this government program so especially flawed, even when we know most are and don't seem to mind? The biggest reason is that in order to get a rebate, you have to have money in the first place.  The California method is designed to float companies that sell solar power systems. The people in the least efficient houses can't afford any money for a solar power system, only the rich can - so if a wealthy house in Napa Valley adds in a $1.45 million dollar solar installation, as Dan Morain used in a Sacramento Bee example, every taxpayer in California, rich or poor, forks over $319,000 of it.  And then they get a federal tax break too.

    People making money on this say the program is 'wildly' successful. I suppose it is, if you can afford to pay subsidies to rich people you supposedly want to tax more.   It's obvious that if the 'industry' would not exist without state rebates and a 30% federal tax credit on top of it, it is not ready to exist.

    How much weatherization for existing, inefficient homes and apartments lived in by lower income people could be done for $3.3 billion?  Every single apartment building in the state, that's how many, and the energy savings would be far more than any solar program could hope to achieve - but that won't be a splashy campaign slogan about how much California cares about clean energy.

    So if we want to have people in Compton buying solar panels for toney Malibu mansions, let's keep rationalizing feel-good science by press release instead of letting poor customers keep more of their money until we have a solution that works.

    Comments

    rholley
    He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want.

    [Proverbs 22:16]
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Bobby Knight
    Look to the East for inspiration. The Chinese government is heavily subsidizing solar energy research. And now they are doing the same for desalination plants. Rising oceans, droughts, and shortages of clean drinking water are not going away any time soon.
    Hank
    I don't know how old you are but when I graduated college some groups insisted we had to do that exact same thing - subsidize heavily - because of Eastern subsidies ... but about semiconductors.

    That's right, Silicon Valley needed to be government funded or America would be left behind because no company could stand up to the crushing economic might of Japan and China alone.  If the government had gotten involved in semiconductors, RAM would be about $1,000 per GB right now - around what we are paying for solar.

    No, subsidizing assets is the wrong way to go - fund more research, I agree, but propping up failed technology because China does it is not a strategy.   Once we have a new energy source, literally everything else is solved (including food and water) so hitting a homerun using basic research is smarter.   And, like I mention, useless solar subsidies could save greenhouse gas emissions and lower bills for poor people by weatherizing their homes instead of dumb panels.

    The Chinese are subsidizing panels to make them attractive enough to sell - like Europe does with dairy.  They are number one in actual alternative energy usage because they have an advantage America does not - if they want to displace a few million peasants to build Three Gorges Dam, they just do it.  It's good to be a Communist dictatorship in that sense.
    UvaE
    This summer, while in Italy, I learned that my wife's uncle invested in solar panels. Even with a subsidy to pay for the original setup and the current government buyback of electricity which he produces, he will still need over 10 years to break even.
    Now that's Italy---imagine the inefficiency of such a scheme in Germany where they have far more cloudy days!
    Eventually, when cheaper technology comes along, solar energy will play a more important role in places like Arizona, Spain and Africa. But it will be ineffective in most other places, and on its own, it will never be the panacea for our energy and environmental problems.

    Hank
    If he could make the money back in 10 years I might be okay with it.  I am betting it is an exaggeration, like every other claim the industry makes.   In California, we are sitting on wind vanes from the 1980s that were supposed to pay for themselves in ten years and are billions in the red.
    vongehr
    "Pay for itself", break even in a certain amount of time, ineffective - all these always need assumptions about the price of fossil fuel etc. derived energy during these years. Stop the subsidies and add the real costs, and solar may have broken even yesterday efficiently on the cloudy north pole.
    Spot on.

    Government trying to pick winners and losers among companies makes no sense, as the results prove time and again. Despite the best of intentions government is a lousy venture capitalist. However, government sponsorship of basic research nearly always produces major benefits for society.

    In particular I would love to see government get behind the search for an affordable room temperature superconductor. That would change the energy game completely, and also create a realistic way to reduce carbon emissions and address the global warming problem. Nothing but win-wins all the way around.