Solar Endeavors

Excerpted from October 1998 issue
A silly device

    Safety isn't silly

    Photovoltaic collectors aren't silly

    Putting them a few inches from a source of electricity is very silly.

    The truth hides the lie

    It's now 2000

    Delusional optimism

    The problem is weak sunlight, not weak technology

If I had not been so lazy, I would have taken a photograph, but instead, I made a crude drawing (Fig. 3) of a silly solar- powered emergency telephone that I walk by every day. Of course, it works at night (when it is most likely to be needed) as well as it does in the day, because the solar cells keep a battery charged. 

No, I am not saying it’s silly to have an emergency telephone on a campus; not everybody is here to receive the wisdom of the faculty. The system is silly, nonetheless. 

Figure 3. What’s wrong with this picture?

Photovoltaic arrays are expensive, as we (and everybody else) have repeatedly pointed out. But that’s hardly an issue when an emergency is involved. In particular, Michael Darby of Australia has told me of one such solar-powered telephone in Middleton (population = 2) located 100 miles from the nearest power lines. But on the UConn campus, why buy the expensive solar cell array when power lines are a few centimeters away? 

Australia is not, however, the land of eternal sanity. Darby tells me, “In Clonurry North Queensland where I lived at 21 degrees latitude solar hot water systems were pushed hard by the conservationists, but to persuade people to buy them, the State government had to offer a cash bribe of A$400.” Darby’s website,, is an excellent source of nuclear information. 

Solar Delusions in Perspective

    “About one-fifth of all energy used around the world now comes from solar resources: wind power, water power, biomass, and direct sunlight.”
Denis Hayes, Head Solar Energy Research Inst. (SERI) (1977)
It is also true that well over 90% of the milk sold in the US comes from cows and bears. The phony part of Hayes’s true statement is the link-up between the two sources that supply the lion’s share of the energy (biomass and water power) and the two piddle-power sources that provide a minuscule fraction of the total (wind and direct sunlight). 
    “By the year 2000, such renewable energy sources could provide 40 percent of the global energy budget; by 2025, humanity could obtain 75 percent of its energy from solar resources …”
Denis Hayes, (1977)

Obviously, Hayes’s prediction for year 2000 was far-fetched. In 1998, about one-fifth of the energy used around the globe comes from solar sources, just as it did when Hayes made this erroneous prediction. The solar contribution did not double (i.e., from 20% to 40%) in the two decades 1977-1998. 

But no scientist worth his salt needs the benefit of hindsight to spot Hayes’s errors. The delusional optimism was obvious from the outset. It isn’t hard to imagine why such ridiculously optimistic predictions fail. Firewood is a very limited resource everywhere firewood is regularly used as the primary energy source, such as equatorial Africa, so that contribution won’t double. The largest, easiest-to-use hydropower sites (such as Niagara Falls, Hoover Dam, …) are already in use. To double the output of hydropower would obviously involve damming many smaller rivers with much lower “head” (height of water column) dams. 

The fact that direct sunlight and wind power have always been inadequate sources doesn’t deter those who think laws of physics were written by Congressmen to benefit lobbyists: 

    “Every essential feature of the proposed solar transition has already proven technically viable; if the 50-year timetable is not met, the roadblocks will have been political — not technical”
Denis Hayes, (1977)
Excerpted from October 1998 The Energy Advocate
Copyright © The Energy Advocate 1998. All rights reserved.