Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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