The Seven Dirty Secrets of Solar Energy

Four headlines struck me, over my morning coffee, this week.  They are headlines that I think will change forever our understanding of energy sources.  From Germany comes “Wide-Scale Bankruptcies in the EU’s Solar Sector Now Seem Likely” and “Germany to Fire up ‘Brown Coal’ Power Plants because of Fears of Energy Shortage.”  From Sweden, “Sweden Embraces Nuclear Energy,” and from France, “Nuclear energy now non-negotiable.”

All four headlines are courtesy of the E.U.’s disastrous missteps in solar — and successes in nuclear.  The disasters are the result of what I call “the seven dirty secrets of solar.”  Germany has led the way down this dark path, with a failed 32-year, quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar experiment, funded by taxpayers, which has left the country ranking among the worst polluters and highest electric bills in Europe, now also burning more brown coal for its grid than ever before, at 40% and climbing, with only 9% contributed by solar.  Germany is fast losing its leading role in energy initiatives to the nuclear successes in France (70% nuclear) and Sweden (40% nuclear).

Black Gardens: The Seven Dirty Secrets of Solar “Farms”

Secret number one: The sun is a lazy worker.

This one is hardly a secret.  Everyone knows it, and everyone ignores it.  The sun is an intermittent, erratic, and untrustworthy worker.  It never works the night shift, takes off all rainy days, and doesn’t show up during cloudy seasons.  It is “off duty” for more than half the time.

Secret number two: Solar energy never replaces fossil fuels; it sits on top of them.

Behind every solar “farm” sits a silent, poisonous partner: an old-fashioned gas and oil electric factory.  Why is this?  Because of law number one: Someone has to fill in when the lazy sun isn’t working.  This is the elephant in the room when people talk about solar.

Not only are these factories carbon-spewers, but they can double your electric bill.  Because ramp-up and ramp-down times for these massive factories are so expensive, they have to be left running continually.  But why talk about negatives?

Secret number three: Old-fashioned gas and oil factories support solar because of the built-in backend revenue streams guaranteed to them.  Gas and oil never support nuclear; there’s no backend revenue stream for them.  Just follow the money

Secret number four: Solar, for the previous reasons, is thus a de facto permanent polluter of the atmosphere.  It will never solve carbon-emission problems (unless, of course, it is backed up by nuclear, which would make no sense.  Germany now, shamefully and quietly, is actually buying nuclear energy, electricity, from France, to back up its failed solar efforts, and trying to hide this.

Secret number five: Politics: Solar “farms” grow votes for politicians, not electricity for consumers.  Given the preceding negatives, why do nations pursue solar energy?  Because of the backend revenue streams for oil and gas for one, but also for votes for “green new deal” politicians.  The trick is to conceal the bad news and keep repeating the good fictions.  Political science’s “big lie” works like this: the masses fall victim more readily to a big lie than a small one — because it never comes into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths.  Take a big lie, repeat it often enough, and it becomes, in the mind of the masses, a truth.  Politicians’ concerns are the next election, not your next electric bill.

Secret number six: Economics: Grid integration of solar, being a nightmare expense, can result in a doubling of electric bills and an exodus of job-providing industries to China.

The task of integrating thousands of constantly fluctuating, intermittent streams of solar electricity into a grid is almost impossible.  It is also terribly costly.  Europe used to have 200 power plants but now has a million.  As the CEO of Germany’s biggest power grid explains in a recent Economist article, future grids will have to be designed as gigantic “smart grids” and will have to be run purely digitally.  These still need to be developed.  And storage batteries to handle city-sized systems remain a utopian dream.

Solar can thus cripple a national economy.  Its costly inefficiencies have caused soaring electric rates and a dangerous exodus of industries from Germany.  Germany’s giant chemical concern BASF has already given the signal: “BASF to Cut 2,600 Jobs after a Year of High Energy Costs.”  And as The New York Times reported last month, “Chinese Cars Star at Munich Auto Show, Underscoring Germany’s Economic Woes.”  Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz are all exploring new corporate parks in China.  The writing is on the wall.  A death knell has been sounded over the economy of a country that could once boast the great quality label “made in Germany.”

Secret number seven involves energy security: the protection of a nation’s citizens depends upon a secure and permanent domestic energy supply.  Once again, Germany is the example.  By decommissioning all its nuclear plants with no backup plan in sight, it trapped itself.  Almost immediately, starved for electricity, it built a pipeline to — of all nations — Russia.  And Putin, seeing that he had Germany under his thumb (and enjoying his war chest being filled daily with millions of Euros from Germany), invaded Ukraine.  Was this a cause-and-effect event, a total surprise?  Hardly, at least for a number of geopolitical critics at the time.  But Germany’s leadership was apparently blind.

Has Germany learned its lesson?  According to the New York Times, it appears about ready to make the same mistake again with China, outsourcing its lifeblood industries to corporate parks in China as they exit Germany — a very dangerous geopolitical move, say the critics.

The Lesson?

It is time to close our excursion into the dark world of solar’s dirty secrets.  The governments of Germany and the E.U. should put a halt to their failed solar projects and, like France and Sweden, start prototyping small-scale nuclear projects for future build-out, in order to provide their countries with genuine clean green energy.

Governments should wake up from their 1970s rock-band “no nukes” stupor, for nuclear energy has come a long way since then.  The French are pushing to give nuclear a leading role in European plans to produce more green energy technology in Europe, much to Germany's dismay.  France not only leads the new wave in energy technology in Europe, but is also spearheading an international effort to research and develop next-generation energy based on fusion power (regular nuclear plants run on fission power).

There is also a new line of small nuclear reactors in the works called SMRs, which are scalable in size and are promising.  Sweden has just struck a deal with GE-Hitachi for a line of them, and Bill Gates is launching a pilot test of them in Wyoming.

There is hope in the world (despite the headlines), and countries in the E.U., especially Germany, can become part of the coming new wave in energy technology (which is scalable and clean, and which is nuclear).  Let’s hope that they do so, and soon.  The lives of their citizens are at stake.

Image: Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

If you experience technical problems, please write to