Through the solar power looking glass

As we all know, media reports and the blogosphere tend to confuse us, some just lie or lay out bullshit propaganda. Things are so bad we can´t really trust most of what we read and see. 

Solar powered kitchen

To give you an example, I´ve picked off a few comments about solar power in the media showing how one can take exactly the same data and use it in diametrically opposed opinions.

To make sure the reader isn´t confused about the actual data, I copied this chart from the Spain´s “Red Electrica de España 2013”. This is the Spanish electric grid 2013 summary. It shows the actual power generated by different sources in an electric power association (unfortunately it does exclude the UK, Sweden, and other large nations).

Electric Power Generated in 2013 in European nations (from REE)

As you can see, the solar power contribution was  fairly puny. Now I´ll move on to some quotes from the media, to see how they reflect what´s going on:

From the Guardian, a British newspaper


 “UK set a record for solar power on June 9, with 3.9 % of the total electricity generated¨


“Germany, with 1.4m PV systems, generated a peak of 23.1GW hours at lunchtime on Monday 9 June, equivalent to 50.6% of its total electricity need. According to government development agency Germany trade and invest (GTAI), solar power grew 34% in the first five months of 2014 compared to last year”

From Forbes Magazine


“Germany’s residential electricity cost is about $0.34/kWh, one of the highest rates in the world. About $0.07/kWh goes directly to subsidizing renewables, which is actually higher than the wholesale electricity price in Europe.”


“In April, renewable energy accounted for a record-setting 54% of the electricity generated in Spain, nearly tripling its share of the pie from just 19% in 2006. The associated economics are something akin to the apocalypse…..In May, the tariff deficit reached a whopping $34 billion.

Overly generous renewable energy subsidies are at least partially to blame. In 2007, Spain paid a premium of $556 per megawatt-hour for electricity that rooftop solar panels supplied to the electric grid, compared with an average $52 paid to competing coal- or gas-fired power plants. By 2012, a whopping $10.6 billion in subsidies were paid out to the renewable energy industry, rising by about 20% from the previous year, and covering more than one third of all electricity generated in Spain.”


“Sweden consumes a substantial amount of electricity per capita (15,000 kWh per person/year). Few countries consume more energy, yet Swedish carbon emissions are low compared with those of other countries. The average Swede releases 5.1 tons of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere, compared with the EU average of 7.9 tons and the US average of 19.1 tons.
The reason for this low emission rate is that about 78 per cent of electricity in Sweden comes from nuclear power and hydroelectric power, neither of which generates carbon emissions. Cogeneration from combined heat and power (CHP plants), accounts for somewhat above 10 per cent of the electricity output in Sweden, and these are mainly powered by biofuels. About 8 per cent of the electricity is imported, and the remainder, about 4 per cent, comes from wind power.”


“The EU's statistics agency Eurostat found that while emissions were cut across the 28-member bloc by an average of 2.5 percent in 2013, they actually went up in six countries, including Germany.

Denmark registered a 6.8 percent increase in CO2 emissions, in Estonia it was up by 4.4 percent, followed by Portugal (+3.6 percent), France (+0.6 percent) and Poland (+0.3 percent).
The strongest cuts in CO2, which account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, came from Cyprus, where emissions went down by 14.7 percent, followed by Romania (-14.6 percent) and Spain (-12.6 percent).”

My conclusions? We can´t trust anything we read. It takes a lot of digging to get down to the truth. Everybody slants the data. 

Now I want to show you a map of the solar insolation in Europe. This is is the average amount of sunlight European nations receive.

Sunlight in Europe, average for the year 
(dark or brick colored means  more 
sunlight, the greens and blues are dimmer) 

As you can see putting up solar panels in northern Europe and the UK doesn´t make any sense. If their citizens want to cut back emissions they should finance solar power in sunny climates and receive credits for being such nice environmentalists. And if they want to get extremely smart about how they reduce worldwide emissions then they should finance hydropower plants in third world countries. Look at this reference for hydropower potential in the world

Hydropower potential around the world, from Norwegian Renewable Energy Partners

So what gives? I think politicians are stupid and the environmental lobby is mostly bark and no logic.


UK  and Germany Set one day solar power record

Forbes magazine

Phys Org

Forbes Magazine

Energy consumption by Source in Europe (2013)

2 comentarios:

  1. But in a complex interacting system, where you have multiple specialized advocates for certain specific things, it seems like what we have is a situation where someone puts their focus on the solar advocates, then paints the entire sustainable energy movement as solar advocates. When you look at the entire system, though, I'm sure you could find groups dedicated to hydro power, space-based solar, nuclear, and probably a few that think we should burn corporate CEO's to keep warm. Humans like to oversimplify things in order to fit them into our limited processing capacity, but the reality is vast, complicated, and nuanced.

    On top of that, due to the nature of human communication and society, if you want to move society one foot in a certain direction, you must often advocate for moving a hundred feet and then "settle" for the lesser distance. If you bargain with your desired end-state as a starting point you will never succeed.

  2. I'm not into painting people using a broad brush. The fact is that solar power doesn't work very well, and yet we read a lot of bullshit about it. Do you want me to write about wind power and how far it can be pushed in real life?