Many of you know I’m writing this during a severe health crisis. You can support the work at the links below. Now, on with the sunshine.
by Liam Scheff
A good friend asked me: Why do people believe the solar myth?
(What is the solar myth? The myth that “we” (the greedy, fat, obstinate, stubborn, delusional, myth-making and believing humonkey mammal can transition our grotesque oil-sucking society into something “green” by using “solar energy.”)
So, my friend asked: Why is there such belief in this when the limitations are so obvious.
I’ll post my answer in a moment. First, a word about the limits of solar energy.
First: Solar energy is not energy from the sun. It is energy from the sun transformed by very expensive, laboratory-produced “mono and poly-silicon wafers” in what are called “clean rooms,” produced by the “microelectronics industry.”
In order to do this sort of work, you have to have a surplus of energy so significant that entire industries can be devoted to the mining, refining, shipping, heating and shaping, pressing and cutting, and general manufacture of metal and plastic housings. Add to that the conductive metals required to transmit electricity. These are expensive and ever harder to pull from the ground.
We’re hitting “peak copper” too. We’ve used the good stuff that was easier to find; as we dig deeper, we pay more in petroleum heavy lifting and blasting. That costs additional millions for the companies doing in the work; that means the cocaine and adrenaline-driven apes who run Wall Street have to drum up investment for the procurement of these harder to find elements.
War Gets In The Way
Meanwhile, wars waged around the world tend to decrease international cooperation, stifle production, cut shipping lines, and call the whole business off. See World War 2 for an example. (Every American had to hand over every scrap of tin he or she could find so the government could make bullets to lodge into the heads and chests of young German and Japanese men.) Do you think we’re heading into a period of more – or less – warfare worldwide?
How will that affect shipping and production lines? Good questions to ask before investing.
Much investment is called off during wartime so that the business of making things to kill “the enemy” can be procured. Citizens doing their patriotic duty, “going without,” donating everything to the war drive, planting gardens in their yards because the shipments of food are all headed overseas to teenage Americans who are about to die for the glory of whatever it is we say we stand for, versus whatever the enemy says they stand for.
But in the absence of a consuming world war (and aren’t we almost there?), the shortfall of easy-to-dig materials makes the construction of elements of giant solar (and windmill) arrays more and more difficult. Oil is a primary ingredient in solar panels, as shipping is all done by diesel fuel. Coal is a primary ingredient as smelting and forging is done with coking coal.
But the biggest issue now facing the fast expansion of solar – as the market bites the hook and investment presently flows into ‘more more more’ panel construction – is that solar is only good for one thing, and only half the time.
Please Hold The Charge
Coal sits there, dirty, idle, doing nothing, until it is lit. When it burns, it burns hot, generates steam from boilers, spins dynamos which create electricity. That’s “on demand.” We get it when we want it. (Germany, for investing massively in solar, has invested in more and more coal plant construction, because solar only works sometimes…more on that in a moment.)
Oil does the same. It sits there, stinking, toxic, until we refine and ignite it in small combustion chambers in our beloved, pointless, useless energy vacuums. I mean “our cars.”
No less than 80% of that energy is wasted as heat and noise – less than 20% of what we burn in a car engine makes it to the wheels. That’s our present. And we hope to emulate that with electric cars. We hope to power those electric cars with solar panels.
That requires batteries.
Batteries are not “green.” They are blood red. The metals required to make batteries have to be – and it’s the same old story – raped from the bowels of inhabited or pristine lands in deserts and salt flats, from exploded mountainsides and river valleys. Lithium, iron, cadmium, nickel – metal mining leaves what are comfortably called “tailings.”
But if you want a better picture, do a search for “toxic waste from rare earth metal mining.” You’ll find areas of the planet turned into full color dioramas from Dante’s Inferno. And the great news is that poor, rural people who live there, still live there, and have to choke down the “water” that has turned black and green as a result of local mining operations.
“Batteries kill” should be tattooed on Elon Musk’s forehead, just so we get a more honest sense of who he is.
But solar requires batteries, because all solar energy can do is take a little sunlight, push the electrons through that laboratory-perfect silicon wafer, and dump those into waiting copper wires, so you can charge your mercury-containing radioactive iPhone … or Tesla car battery. Otherwise, that energy dies on the vine. It doesn’t magically stay in the copper for you to use later.
It must be suspended in a holding medium – a battery – which separates positive and negative charges and allows them to be accessed later.Add to that the limitations: Batteries aren’t perfect, they have decay rates from non-use, and a limit to how many times they can be recharged.
We’re now needing a perpetual-motion machine of battery construction, heavy and rare earth metal mining – and recycling – and an infinitely compliant planet that somehow gives us all the metal we need, while we raid our dying water supply to do this heavy and highly-energy intensive machine labor.
This is not the work of many green hands making a better future – this is the work of petroleum, coal, gas, and the world’s most dangerous metals, turning landscapes into death zones. (Hey, go look it up: “heavy metal mining, Mongolia, Bolivia, toxic.”
But we’ll build a perfect, solar-powered world. We will! Say well-intentioned “eco-warriors.” And anyone who says otherwise is a “pessimist.” Not a realist, but a “pessimist and cynic” who is “against progress” and apparently not “not dreaming big enough.”
Or, these are the complaints I’ve received from the “eco-warriors” I’ve tried to suggest consider a more strategic use of solar panels. (Why can’t people doing some good things be open to hearing about the limits of their strategies? Or their lack of total strategy? Big question, answer coming soon.)
Rather than trying to make our oil-soaked-and-sucking world into a solar-soaked-and-sucking replica, we might consider what solar is good for. And that brings us to problem #2.
Solar is not good for running cars. In fact, solar isn’t good for running anything that moves. It is okay for generating electrical current. Sometimes.
That “sometimes” is important. Because it refers to a particular time of the day when the sun – remember the sun? That’s what the “solar” in “solar power” is referring to… when the sun is high in the sky and very bright.
That’s when these photovoltaic cells have the best chance of making a little bit of energy – to spin a fan, or charge a death battery, or light a light bulb.
(Do you want to know how hard it is to manufacture light bulbs? How about LEDs? How about anything? Probably not. These things are ours because we want them. They fall from the sky, and we put them in our houses in order to be “green.”)
Wrong. Of course. They’re all part of the same interconnected, international system of drilling, mining, heating, forging, shaping, refining, and manufacturing of extremely specific small and large parts, that have to be uniformly sized to fit together at the assembly point.
And the assembly point, thanks to the genius of “globalization” is never the mining and refining point. No – we do the job of making one product in at least three, four or five, or more countries.
Remember warfare? How about economic turn-down? How about banking collapse? How do you see the cooperation of international manufacturers proceeding during a national emergency? How about two national emergencies? How about three, plus two natural disasters?
Blowing Cold Sunlight
Solar is most valuable where it is least valuable. That is, in the scorching deserts and malaria-inducing tropics – where the sun is ever present during long days – solar works best. These are the areas that people should not be living in large numbers, because the local ecology and geology cannot support them on local food and water supplies; or they’re so hot that they require excessive energy use for air-conditioning to keep people from dying of heat exhaustion on a regular basis.
As a small experiment in preparing for collapse, let’s say we removed air-conditioning from all American homes and apartment buildings for three weeks in August of this coming year, 2017. Three weeks of scorching August weather. In three weeks, we can turn it back on. It’s just three short weeks of ninety and hundred degree days, without any means of cooling yourself off but jumping in rivers. (Do you live near a river? One you feel you’d like to jump into? That isn’t filled with industrial waste? I didn’t think so.)
Three weeks later, we can go back to cooling our homes. Now, let’s count the dead. The stinking pile of corpses that three weeks without air conditioning has created. How many tens of millions do you think we’d rack up in three weeks? No less than 30 million, is my wager. The elderly, the infirm, the very young, the obese. Anyone who can’t move very much and gets stuck inside a stifling high-rise. Dead. Corpses. Rotting. Disease.
And that was just three weeks in the tropics without air conditioning, in a modern American city or suburb.
So, what does this have to do with solar?
Solar energy generates a weak stream of electrons compared with burning coal or gas. It’s sufficient for lighting a light bulb, or spinning a fan. It’s not so good at powering a grid-smashing overload of air conditioning compressors and pumps.
But the regions best suited for solar are those same regions that need air conditioning. And you begin to see the problem.
There will be no energy left after the ‘just keeping people alive’ use of electricity generated by solar is gobbled up by air conditioners in the desert and tropics.
(Or, you can go back to living an indigenous tribal life. Just kidding. You’d die in a week of some intestinal parasite.)
Night And Day
And now we’re down to it. Solar works under bright sun to produce electricity. Deserts and hot tropics work best. They’re also the worst places to build civilization.
Transporting energy requires more energy – more wiring, more conductive metals, more mining, more metal construction, more coal, gas and oil; more tailings, more death, more more more of everything the “eco-warriors” say they are against.
And that’s just for the daytime. Because solar energy does not work… do you know the answer?
Right. At night. You want to know why Germany, the solar queen of the world, is building more coal plants? Because solar (and wind) energy are not reliable for maintaining a grid. They are “intermittent.” And our gorgeous cannibalistic capitalist society cannot live with intermittentency. We want it, need it, must have it – now.
And now we’re back to batteries. It does stay very hot at night in Phoenix, does it not? How about in the San Fernando Valley? How about in Dubai? (Well, they’ll just burn oil for the Sheik’s air-conditioners, and not sell it to anyone else.)
Solar is a night-time nothing. A place for birds to nest, for rain to rust wires, wind to tear down installations, hurricanes to destroy investments… and for snow to accumulate in long winters.
For example, Maine, the least sunny state in the nation, just mounted a large solar installation – but who’s going to clear the snow, or protect the parts from the bending and breaking power of expanding and contracting ice during the endless dark winters?
If Only You Believed!
Nobody likes these questions. And that brings me to the question my friend asked me:
Why are people so attached to the idea that solar will save us?
My answer was simple:
• Why do people believe in Jesus? Or Moses?
• Why do people believe that people having sex is “sinful” and watching it is “pornographic?”
• Why do people believe that “we’re the greatest country on earth?”
• Why do people believe anything that they believe – that they cannot reasonably argue or prove?
Do you want the answer? Can you handle the truth? Cue Jack Nicholson… I’m not sure you can.
But here it is:
We are a species of mammal that is not intellectually wired to handle long-term decision making and consideration of potential weaknesses or negative effects of our tool-making. Advanced as our tool-making is – we’re not good at figuring in the “blowback,” the shortfalls, the limits to our dreaming.
Let me say it more simply:
We’re sentimentally attached to believing what we’ve been told as children. We believe what our culture has told us, and are emotionally and psychologically attached to supporting that belief – we feel great angst when we challenge a belief – even though our heads scream “what? that doesn’t make any fucking sense!” Our culture says: “These are our truths, believe them or be shunned, hated, pushed to the outskirts, marginalized – and alone.”
We’re deeply programmed to go along to get along. Our tribal selves don’t like to court ostracism. Ostracism equals death in the tribal world. So, we “believe.” We “believe” what we can easily demonstrate is false. Because we feel we must, for our sanity’s sake.
Thus, nations of adults “believe” absolutely in magical figures from non-historical books. Superheroes of the ancient world are turned into historical figures in the modern. (That’s not a knock against spirituality – it’s a knock against our inability to think above our programming. Our spiritual lives can be much larger if we get away from the programmed icons owned by the various world churches).
We “believe” that sex is shameful (because we were told it was as children, because the ancient world learned to manage populations through this ready-made “shame” button).
We “believe” we’re a democratic country (and that it means something to claim so) because … we were told so as children. And we argue, and fight, and vote, and complain, and “believe” that claiming we voted or are democratic or freedom-loving makes any of it true. (We’re dropping bombs on nations, squeezing the blood out of irradiated Iraqi children to fill our gas tanks, and turning the world’s poorest countries into radioactive “tailings” death zones.)
But still, we “believe.”
The truth is much different than the belief system.
The truth… people don’t like the truth.
The truth is: we’re a tribal species of story-telling, tool-making mammal, that had one great flirtation with an energy source that it could not manage well – oil – that let it build into an outrageously useless “society” entirely dependent on service by extremely compact and volatile sources of energy.
Our entire western world is a slave to oil. And we imagine we can “free ourselves” by making it a slave to “solar energy.” Without skipping a heartbeat.
What can I tell you.
Good fucking luck.
History tells us that humanity tends to fall back to feudalism and tribalism without any trouble at all. When the empires crumble, the tribe re-emerges, and if the tribe is successful enough at battling other tribes, a city-state might form, a wall of dirt, brick and mud might be erected, weapons might be forged to hold the potential enemies at bay; rules constructed to manage the population by powerful dangerous men who soon claim to be gods. And people bow meekly, place their offerings, and spend their lives mostly inebriated on the water supply, that has to be made safe to drink by brewing it into wine or beer.
So what have we learned?
We’ve learned that solar is not just the solar panel that you strap onto your roof. We’ve learned that solar is a patch that we’re putting on a crumbling system. The patch might be very important and useful for a time. But it might not last for as long as we’d like it to.
Therefore we might want to think strategically about where we put our solar dreams. Perhaps instead of all imagining that we can power our gluttonous soul suicide world raping mercenary capitalist society by replacing coal, oil and gas with “solar,” we should carefully put solar installations on places where many people can use them, benefit from a little electricity in an emergency. Like a town hall. (You don’t have a town hall? More’s the pity.) Or a large church (no, I’m not a big fan, but it’s where people will go in an emergency – so better get it ready). Or a community center. And if you don’t have one already, then get to fucking building one already, goddammit.
These are the places we would most benefit from installing a daytime energy source, a place to charge small devices, while we have them, and a place for people to come together to support each other in the future’s real use of solar energy: gardening and farming, so that we have food when the petroleum agriculture machine reaps the last harvest from the dead topsoil. Because we’re heading in that direction, too.
Much can be done to improve our world. But not by keeping the blueprint of the current world.
We need to be local, think local, and act local. Any solar tied to a grid is a waste of time and energy. Solar is “Johnny on the spot” in terms of electrical production, and should never be asked to be anything more.
You don’t agree? I don’t care. This world is going down in flames. I’m just pointing out where the fires are going to start, and be the hottest. If you want to die in the fire, stay in the cities. If you want to live, get your ass to a transition town today, or tomorrow, but do not wait longer.
If it all gets better and magical fusion devices come from outer space to light the way while you’re living in a transition town that respects its energy limits – you’ll find yourself in a community that’s conserving resources for a better quality of life, integrated with your natural environment, knowing your neighbors, participating in an actual life…and not being a planetary rapist.
So, that’s win-win, as far as I can tell.
You can support my writing and out-loud philosophizing by buying a book or donating on Paypal. While it exists.
Please support American Heretic by buying a book:
Or donate $5 to $20 on Paypal: