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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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