The usual way in which the cost per kilowatt-hour (KWh) of electric power produced by solar cells – devices that convert sunshine directly into electricity: no pollution; no nasty stuff to dispose; no harmful side-effects like global warming due to carbon dioxide, etc, etc, etc – is compared with that from conventional power stations, particularly those that burn oil or coal (ugh!), is to put the numbers side by side, and conclude that …the bigger, the worse. Well, my friends, if that’s deemed to be the whole answer, it would be challenging to find a way of being more myopic and remote from reality.
How so? For starters, do we really need to remind ourselves of where most of the oil comes from, and who, so to speak, has their greedy fingers on the tap? And how much does the U.S of A spend in an effort to protect itself from the constant threat of big-time blackmail (remember 1973?) from those – ironically mostly sun-drenched – tap-masters? In fact, of course, being armed to the teeth with every imaginable kind of weaponry is no protection at all: at the drop of a burnoose, the tap can slam shut.
Is there a remedy available? Well, how about this for a start? The cost of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was about $5 billion back in 1973, and to arm it, staff it, and keep it operational is, as a guess, probably about another $5 billion over 5 years, not including putting aside a few pennies for the eventual and inevitably necessary decommissioning of those 2 nuclear reactors aboard.
OK, folks: here we open the door for those more rigorous than me in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems arithmetic, but I’ve got some pretty good back-up data for what follows. Currently, large PV systems that deliver AC cost about $8,500/KW, and deliver up to 2,000 KWh/year/peak KW of the solar panels – in sunny Arizona, for example. To get a feel for the numbers, a 2KW peak power system in the sunnier parts of the USA will deliver the approximately 4,000KWh/year used by the average household. If made from crystalline silicon, the solar cells themselves simply do not wear out; they last about 20 years or so. And most of them are based on silicon, the second most plentiful solid element in the earth’s crust. So, unlike fossil fuels, the supply of silicon will never ever run out.
Assuming an attainable reduction in PV systems cost to, say, $2,500/KW due to increased efficiency solar cells and a huge increase in the production thereof, the cost of building, owning and operating a single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for 5 years could, instead, enable the construction and operation of enough solar PV systems to supply electricity to some 2,000,000 homes for 20 years or so. Not a bad start! (It’s left as an exercise for the reader to figure out how much less oil would need to be burned to supply that much electricity.) Somehow that would make me, at least, feel more secure than knowing that there’s one more dinosauric naval vessel afloat, who’s most successful function would be never to be called upon to get used in anger.
Please note that the US Department of Defense budget for 2005 was over $400 billion – plus a few more tens of $billions since then to ‘democratize’ Iraq: but Defense against what? Certainly not against the USA’s ever-increasing dependence on imported oil, and the ever-decreasing prospects that your grandchildren and mine will be able to ‘enjoy’ the lavish squandering of irreplaceable fossil fuels, the burgeoning air pollution, and goodness only knows the extent of the hardly beneficial effects of global warming.