10 counterarguments to understand solar energy

October 21, 2020 by Bertrand Piccard

Even though fossils fuels are now more expensive than most renewable energies and are largely responsible for global pollution and climate disruptions, certain influential voices continue to deny that there is need for an energy revolution and criticize solar power. Whether they are doing it for personal gain or because they lack knowledge or vision, I feel it is vital to lay few common preconceptions to rest by offering counterarguments to the most misleading statements.

“Electricity generated by solar energy is too expensive”

Let’s start with the most common argument: solar energy is too expensive. This used to be the case but it is not anymore. According to an IRENA report, the cost of photovoltaic electricity has fallen by 82% since 2010 and this trend looks set to continue. French company Akuo Energy (which has been awarded the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution label for several of its technologies) set a new record last year with its bid in the Portuguese government’s tender process. A 150 MW power plant will provide solar electricity for all-time low price of 1.5 cents/kWh. In many parts of the world, solar energy has become the most competitive source of energy, ahead of polluting fossil fuels and, very often, nuclear energy.

“Renewable energy is unreliable”

Granted, it is intermittent—the sun does not shine at night or even every day. However, numerous energy storage technologies are being developed to address this issue, which is crucial for the environmental transition—hydrogen, lithium batteries (in electric vehicles when they are not in use, for instance), compressed air and pumped storage power plants. Other innovative solutions include recycled ceramic bricks that store heat at temperatures between 500 and 1000°C, as well as a 120-meter-high crane developed by Energy Vault that lifts concrete blocks when there is excess electricity and lowers them back down when they are needed to generate electricity. Clearly, the cost of storage must be incorporated into the end-user price of solar electricity, but technological progress ensures that photovoltaic energy remains competitive.

“It threatens traditional industry and finance”

This is only true if dinosaurs cling on to the past. That is why we must encourage oil companies to go green now and rebrand themselves as energy companies. If leading renewable energy production and distribution companies diversify, it can only work in their favor, not to mention customer service, which is becoming a major source of income—as demonstrated by Engie on a daily basis. Despite reporting one of its worst quarterly results, BP shares closed up 6.5% this summer after the company unveiled its environmental plan to increase investments in renewable energy tenfold and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This was because pension funds and life assurance companies are acutely aware that fossil fuel investments are becoming toxic assets, just like subprimes back in 2008. 

“Climate change is a very long-term issue”

Sometimes I hear people say that solar energy is first and foremost a way to combat climate change—which they claim to be a long‑term problem, when they are not simply denying it exists—and that we have more immediate priorities. This is untrue for two reasons. Not only is the whole world already experiencing the effects of climate change but, even more importantly, solar energy helps combat another very topical, disastrous issue: air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution affects 9 in 10 people worldwide and the resulting diseases kill approximately 8 million people every year.

“Some places are not sunny enough”

Places that are not sunny enough may have other resources, including wind, waterways, waves and geothermal energy. Solar energy is not a silver bullet and must be used alongside other energy sources. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address this problem but rather a combination of clean technologies.

“It won’t be able to meet global energy demand”

Based on the current rate of global energy wastage, this is true—around 75% of energy generated is lost due to the outdated technologies that are still in use. This is why I have been fighting for many years to make energy efficiency a priority on the environmental agenda. We have to implement much stricter standards and regulations in this area to ramp up the energy efficiency of our electrical appliances and devices, buildings, transportation and factories.

“Too much energy is needed to manufacture solar panels”

I recently saw an ‘expert’ tell a parliamentary committee that solar panel take 30 years to pay back their embodied energy—the energy required to manufacture, transport and recycle them. However, this figure is totally false. It takes between 6 months and a year in half the world, including most of France. This means that solar panels take less than a year to pay back the electricity used to manufacture them. And then, throughout their 30-year lifespan, they produce carbon-free, renewable energy. 

“Solar energy is for wealthy countries”

This is completely untrue. Solar energy is the cheapest way to generate electricity and is decentralized, which means it is accessible to even the most isolated, disadvantaged areas. So many countries are becoming even poorer as they spend their money on gas or oil, even though they cannot afford to install high-voltage power lines. Solar energy is therefore the only way to ensure local economic growth and social stability.

“Solar energy requires state subsidies”

Though solar energy was first developed at a time of buy-back schemes that often guaranteed high rates, it is now the opposite that is currently happening in most places. Fossil fuels receive billions of dollars in subsidies worldwide and do not counteract their externalities—the damage they cause to people’s health and the environment.

“It’s ugly”

No, it was ugly. Nowadays, there are solar tiles—like the ones on the France pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai—to suit all tastes.

As you can tell, I am a staunch advocate of solar energy—not because it has enabled me to fly night and day on board Solar Impulse or because it helps combat climate change, but because it is a logical alternative that, in addition to being environmentally friendly, creates sustainable employment and generates cheaper electricity than fossil fuels. Self-proclaimed experts will not be able to prevent it from becoming a leading energy source worldwide, as long as we shield ourselves from their falsehoods.

This article was originally published in French in the Usbek&Rica. Read the original here.

The translation was provided by Alto International.

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