Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Busting Myths About Photovoltaics

• September 15, 2010 • 12:03 PM

Fresh from the European Union photovoltaic conference, our John Perlin takes on some of the misconceptions clouding the solar power movement.

The European Union Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference I just attended stressed the need for public education about photovoltaics — the silicon-based solar cells that turn sunlight into usable electricity — to increase acceptance of the solar-power technology.

Myths abound about photovoltaics that hinder their growth, and I’d like to burst some of those misconceptions right here:

Myth: Because solar cells are only a few microns thick, they produce weaker electricity.

Fact: All electrons are created equal. Hence, the movement of electrons that make up electricity are no different from those generated by the sun striking “wimpy” solar cells than from those generated by huge turbines powered by steam. Our minds have become so accustomed to electricity generated by large power plants that it is hard to adjust to the concept that extremely thin material can do the same work.

Myth: Photovoltaic cells require much more area to generate power than do power plants run on fossil fuels or nuclear.

Fact: If the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels and nuclear is accounted for as well, then the area required for the production and generation of the three energy sources is about the same.

Myth: Photovoltaics, unlike other power generators, can only survive with subsidies.

Fact: While subsidies do matter, as shown in Germany, other common power sources also receive major support. Fossil fuels and nuclear receive about $500 billion in subsidies worldwide every year. If not for the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability of nuclear power plants in the U.S., they would be unable to operate since insurance costs would be too expensive.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Editor’s Note

Our John Perlin is attending the 25th annual European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference in Valencia, Spain. He will be providing updates throughout the meeting. Check back with our By the Way blog to see more reports from this conference.[/class]

Myth: Photovoltaic-generated electricity is more costly than electricity generated by fossil-fueled or nuclear-powered electricity.

Fact: All economic models focus on initial investment, higher for photovoltaics and solar energy in general, than the expenses for running them. Since photovoltaic technologies work with minimal maintenance and no power requirements over many decades receiving free energy from the sun, the electricity itself eventually costs nothing (although human administration, property taxes, etc., will cost something). Also, few present economic models factor in the risk of fuel costs rising or of their diminished availability over the long term, nor do they usually include externalities such as the military cost of guaranteeing continued access to fossil fuels or America’s continued armed presence in oil- and gas-producing regions even in peacetime.

Myth: Photovoltaics require full sun to operate and therefore do not work in cloudy regions.

Fact: Photovoltaics work both with direct radiation (full sun) and diffuse sun (cloudy skies). Germany, for example, not known for its sunny climate, produces more electricity from sunlight than any other nation.

Myth: Solar cells can only work when the sun shines.

Fact: That’s true, but with the smart grid, many means of power storage exist. For example, when wind power produces excess electricity in Denmark, it goes to hydro-electric plants in Norway where they pump water uphill. When the Danes require more power than the wind machines can produce, the water stored uphill flows downward through the hydro power plants, sending the electricity produced immediately to Denmark.

Myth: Solar cells require more energy for their production than they generate.

Fact: Under the most trying conditions, it takes no more than three years of operation for solar cells to pay back the energy that goes into making them. As they will last for many decades, their energy payback is extremely short. Changes in technology, such as plastics or paint-ons, may change the time frames but not the underlying equation.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

John Perlin
An international expert on solar energy and forestry, John Perlin has lectured extensively on these topics in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Perlin is the author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization as well as From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Perlin mentors those involved in realizing photovoltaic, solar hot-water, and energy-efficiency technologies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and coordinates the California Space Grant Consortium as a member of UCSB’s department of physics.

More From John Perlin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.