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Some facts about this solar energy thing

September 23, 2014

On September 18, 2014, the White blog announced a new job training pilot program to train up to 50,000 new solar array installers over a six-year period, with the announcement undoubtedly set to coincide with the big climate change march and today’s meetings at the U.N.

That’s a lot of potential jobs…or is it?

One of the major national employment posting sites showed 322 postings for solar installers on the day this was written. Even generously assuming that each employer would hire ten installers, that’s only 3,220 openings, and the program could be training 8,333 per year if it ran at full capacity. Given that by 2050, the use of solar energy is only projected to double, what happens to all those folks that have attained these new skills?

But there’s sure to be a big boom in solar usage, requiring lots more installers, right? The website says so!

Climate change activists who are passionate about this issue believe that all other forms of energy production are bad, with the possible exception of wind energy, although some are even critics of that method. Even hydroelectric generation is profiled as a species-destroying bogeyman, due to the dams. They would have you believe that the entire world can go solar with no harmful effects on the environment, jobs or any other possible unintended consequences, even in areas that get less than 4 hours of suitable peak power generation sunlight per day.

The question is, how do you get there? Obviously, existing homes would have to be converted, since confining it only to new construction would take a century or more to complete the evolution.

So, retrofitting would be where most of the new jobs would occur. Is retrofitting your home a viable option for the average middle class home owner?

I’m certainly no environmental activist, but hey, I like to save money where I can, so I investigated this solar thing as a matter of economic viability, rather than an environmental statement. I decided to look at my area to see if that was a viable option.

Since I live in a northern-tier state that gets pretty darn cold in the winter, the cost of electricity is seldom far from my mind. It can and has gotten down to -34°F air temperature at my house in the winter. Add a little wind to that and it’s pretty chilly. Factor in an all-electric house on a well system and the bill gets substantial in the winter.

About the only saving grace is that I also live in a state with some of the lowest per/kwh  rates in the nation (about .11/kwh  on average). Still, the power costs can get pretty high in the winter; typically  eight to ten times my lowest summer bill. Naturally I’ve already tried to minimize the cost as much as possible. I’ve added insulation, changed out windows, reduced the thermostat to 50° in seldom-used rooms in the winter and I do have wood heat as an auxiliary back-up.

So, I looked at the cost to go solar. After discovering that the cost of a normal 7.5KW home system would be about $25,000 (which would only generate about 46% of my actual power needs annually), and my average saving would be $36 a month, according to the site at, I discarded the idea as being too expensive.

What about going totally off-grid?  Would that raise the savings enough to make it viable?

I checked several solar power calculator sites, and the average estimate for my needs was at least 14.86 KW generation capacity (for my area, yours might be different) to go off-grid.

(In the probably more-than-you-want-to-know category, current conversion efficiency (the amount of energy striking the panels that actually becomes usable homeowner electricity)  is reportedly about 12 to 18%, averaging 14% for most generally available photovoltaic panels, although some manufacturers claim rates as high as 44% for panels such as those used on spacecraft.)

My cost would be close to 50K by the time you add in the cost of batteries, shipping, site preparation (the array would need to be ground-mounted, due to the size and weight of the components), racking, converters, permits, fees, etc. If you figure in the time value of money, would take far too long to pay for itself (15-25 years depending on the kwh output.)  Also, some of the tax breaks aren’t as good as the website makes them out to be in actual practice.

Based on my state’s 4-year, 4%-interest repayment schedule for an renewable energy loan (leasing is not an option here), 50K would cost $1129/mo. My average monthly power bill is $283.40. Even assuming that I could sell back some of the power (limited to 5kw in my state) in the four warmest months,  that doesn’t pencil out, and certainly doesn’t support the government’s claim that solar power now costs just .11/kwh to produce.

I’m sure other people have done the math too. Retrofitting all U.S. homes is financially out of the average person’s reach, even on a lease basis, and will get further out of reach if real household income declines as it has in the recent past. Add in the fact that most people only stay in one home about seven years, and retrofitting becomes even less attractive.

In short, once again, the administration is projecting everything on the best case scenario. The only way this works is to pass laws mandating that everyone has to have solar power. Even under the government’s best case scenario it is only projecting 27% of all homes to be solar- powered by 2050.

Given that the cost of doing anything in the Federal government is probably ten times what it would cost in the private sector, will we get back in energy savings what we put out in Federal money for the grants and costs to train these 50,000 installers, never mind what has and will be given to the solar energy companies?

It’s doubtful.

From → op-ed

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