Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hucksters for a solar panel derby

"Solar panels at lower-than-usual cost," trumpets the New York Times headline for an article from a Business staffer rarely known to let nasty details mess up a great story [1]. "Less than $1 a watt," he writes, when "a new coal plant costs about $2.1 a watt." Glory! It must be truly a new age.

Well. Maybe. One of these days. First you have to pay for the space, next mount and wire the panels, then invert the power to AC and adapt it to the electrical grid. That will more than double the price.

Finally you have to discount for capacity factor, the ratio of average AC power to peak DC power, at which "$1 a watt" was quoted. Most places outside Times Sq., the sun doesn't shine high in a cloudless sky all the time.

In the United States, practical capacity factors range from about 20 percent, for costly sun-tracking mounts in Arizona deserts, to about 10 percent, for cheaper stationary mounts in northern New England.

Once nasty details are factored in, costs for an average AC watt available to users are at least ten times costs for a peak DC watt from an unmounted panel.

Oh my. Now a solar power-plant costs at least five-fold what a coal-fired plant does, and maybe more than double that. Houston, we have a problem.

But hurry! Get yours now. Federal tax credits through December 31, 2007. Seems there was a dust-up between Pres. and Congress over an Energy Efficiency bill. So after that, gone with the wind (lost its credits, too).

Of course so-called "news" articles are often more views than news, when they are not just press releases and puff pieces. Staff are expected to follow local party lines. It's partly arrogance, but partly economics. The cookie-cutter views are cheaper than news, while puff pieces cost little and press releases hardly anything. No tedious, expensive research, background reviews, fact checks or rewrites; just type and go.

Party lines for 2007 were mostly that energy alternatives are a Good Thing, so items making them look Hard or Expensive would rarely make the cut. For example, several reporters for big newspapers who wrote about the 2007 energy efficiency bill [2] were well aware that games were played with the bill, that lies were told about its effects, and that many loopholes were left in it. Only one, John Donnelly writing for the Boston Globe December 15, explained some of the story when it mattered [3][4].

Kudos to Donnelly and his editor, but cautions for the rest of us. Arrogance and laziness in reporting means we turn to many sources to search out facts and will never simply trust any report.

[1] John Markoff, Start-up sells solar panels at lower-than-usual cost, New York Times, December 18, 2007, available at

[2] Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Public Law 110-140, introduced as H.R. 6 and other bills, enacted December 19, 2007. See for the tangle of legislative history and for the final text.

[3] John Donnelly, Energy bill targets fuel consumption climb, Boston Globe, December 15, 2007, available at See a typical follow-up: Martin LaMonica, New energy act gets green light, CNET News, December 19, 2007, available at -- one of many sure to explain the law once it is a done deal and no longer in play.

[4] Appearing two days after enactment of Public Law 110-140, a Los Angeles Times article explains one of the many games played with the bill: Janet Wilson, EPA chief is said to have ignored staff, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2007, available at,1,1021228.story.

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