There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Energy
Here’s a fun little tweet that caught a lot of flak this week.
I had to read this post like 17 times before I understood what the controversy was. And not cause I’m stupid, neither.
It’s because I actually HAVE solar power.
Ostensibly, this tweet is humorous in part because solar panels don’t make heat, they make electricity. But a lot of homes have heaters that DO run on electricity – baseboards and electric furnaces for instance. Many natural gas, coal, and fuel oil heat systems have fans on them or vent systems to distribute heated air that are electric-powered, even though electricity is not their primary source of heat. Additionally, many Americans use space heaters to supplement inadequate central heating, particularly in subzero temperatures. Electric heat is becoming more and more popular in environmentally conscious states like California, since it’s zero emission.
So this tweet isn’t as dumb as it seems at first blush. The fact is, if America increased reliance on solar power, quite a few people would be in effect heating their homes with solar panels. Solar panels create electricity that would be stored in a battery bank and then they’d use some sort of heating device powered by that stored electricity for warmth.
The other humorous aspect of this tweet is that chilly temperatures and sunshine are two different things and people are assuming that Jim Hoft is confused about that. It can, of course, be frigid on a sunny day and vice versa.
But the thing is, while sunlight and temperatures are not directly related, they ARE strongly correlated. In a Northern climate, November through February are not only the coldest months of the year, but they’re also the hardest to get through using just solar. (really, anywhere from October through April is dicey)
As in, it’s impossible.
My husband and I are experts at this lifestyle, we’re totally dedicated to the principle, we live in a dry climate with sunny fall weather even into November most years, and it’s still impossible.
It’s not that it’s cold per se – solar panels actually work more efficiently in cold temperatures. It’s that it’s overcast or foggy much of the time, the days are shorter, and worst of all the sunlight is coming in at a different angle than it does in the summertime (short days and the sun at a lower position in the sky are why winter is cold, or so my second grader tells me.) The sun is puny and weak in the winter. He just doesn’t have the strength to charge our batteries as fast as he does in the summer. Even on the rare sunny winter day we simply cannot make enough solar to break even on our household electrical usage – lights, tv, computer, washing clothes, pumping water, incidental appliances – let alone fully charge our battery bank. And we don’t even heat, cook, make hot water, or run our refrigerator with electricity.
A person trying to heat a home using electricity-generated solar power in a Northern climate actually would have serious problems in extremely cold temps. Cold temperatures, even when accompanied by sunshine, mean that one would need to run an electric heater longer and at a higher setting and this would drain your battery bank much more quickly. And remember, it’s winter; the days are shorter, the sun is weaker, you use more lights, your batteries recharge slower than in the summertime. Even if it was cold and sunny all winter long (never happens) heating with solar alone would be challenging, if not impossible in a Northern climate like the upper Midwest just because of day length and sun angle.
So what would people do in this situation? What do we do? How do we heat our home and generate electricity on days when Jolly Mr. Sun is nowhere to be seen?? Well, we rely (as most Northern solar users do) on some things that are not terribly environmentally friendly. We heat with a wood stove, we burn propane for hot water, cooking, and refrigeration. When our batteries start to run low (approximately every 2-3 days even though we conserve religiously) we run either a gasoline or propane generator. For several hours. That’s what life on “clean and green” solar in a Northern climate actually entails…frequent supplementation by wood and/or fossil fuels. Switching the city of Chicago (not to mention Detroit and Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Buffalo) over to solar power means that 3 million people would end up burning wood or coal for heat and/or running gasoline or propane generators that are polluting, dangerous, difficult to run, and noisy. Going solar with the technology that presently exists would be worse for the environment, not better, than the system we presently have.
A lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about like to discuss solar power as if it’s some sort of Messianic solution to climate change. The argument for renewable energy* is often presented as if there’s a sinister fossil fuel cabal preventing the nation from easily and joyfully switching to solar after which we’d all live happily ever after. But solar power has its limitations and drawbacks just like everything does. And one of the largest is that you can’t manage on solar alone for a good 6 months of the year in cold and wintry Northern climes.
If solar was simple, if it was a magic unicorn just this side of cold fusion, we’d all already be using it. There are very real reasons why we don’t, and one of them is cold and inclement winter weather in 2/3 of the United States.
The Gateway Pundit may be an idiot, but he’s not wrong on this one.
*Wind power has even more limitations than solar. Wind turbines have to run at quite a high speed, and sustain them for some time, to produce power. An occasional gust won’t do, nor will a steady light breeze. High winds for long periods are required to make usable amounts of electricity. Wind is a massive expense for very little power generation at least on the individual household level.
Photo by LunchboxLarry