Fossil Fuels’ Damages Get Lost in the Gee Whiz Rhetoric

by Duane Nichols on February 23, 2015

Solar Panels already in WV, MD, etc.

Energy needs could actually fit quite nicely in just one desert

Guest Commentary by Mark B. Tauger, Morgantown Dominion Post, February 23, 2015

WVU President E. Gordon Gee’s remarks about solar power were recently quoted (DP-Tuesday) as: “Replacing fossil-fuel energy with alternative energy means ‘we would have to pave this country in windmills and solar farms … a windmill in every backyard … a solar panel on every green space.’ ”

Gee’s assertion is exaggerated and one-sided. A German scientist, Nadine May, in her diploma thesis, “Eco-balance of a Solar Electricity Transmission from North Africa to Europe” (Technical University of Braunschweig, 2005), examined solar irradiance and solar energy generating capacities of existing technologies.

She calculated that all of the world’s energy needs could be met by solar panels covering an area of 254×254 kilometers or about 25,600 square miles (roughly the size of West Virginia.)

May showed that this area would occupy a very small square of the Sahara Desert, but to use a more secure site, this is the area of the Mojave desert, and much smaller than the Chihuahuan Desert (140,000 square miles) or the Sonoran Desert (110,000 square miles).

All these deserts receive sufficient continuous sunlight to provide continuous energy flows, especially now that global warming will be causing decades-long droughts in our nation’s Southwest, according to new research by NASA. Again, that is the total world energy demand, the United States demand would require much less than half of that area of solar panels.

To meet West Virginia’s energy needs, which are considerably less than the energy demands of most U.S. states and developed countries, the area of solar panels necessary would be much less than one-half of one percent of the 25,000-square-mile area, perhaps 50 square miles of cells, or a region 7 miles by 7 miles, which could be broken up and scattered in a few isolated regions in the state, certainly without “a solar panel on every greenspace.”

Similar corrections could be made to Gee’s exaggerated assertions about “a windmill in every backyard.”

Even if May’s estimate is too low, and the world would need two or three times that area, that would still be a tiny fraction of the regions in the world that get reliable sun and could produce energy for all the world’s needs.

Such a system would also be very cost-effective. The existing U.S. energy industries — oil, coal, gas and nuclear — have received during their lifetime an estimated $630 billion in subsidies from the U.S. government, i.e., from taxpayers.

They have also received much larger indirect and hidden subsidies because they have avoided paying for many of the damages their products have caused or contributed to, such as mine workers’ lung diseases, many illnesses among the general population related to coal smoke, environmental destruction caused by mine pollution and burning of fossil fuels, and the long-term effects of climate change.

By comparison, solar and other renewables have received only about $50 billion in subsidies, yet they are already being used widely in many countries. Renewables have been a bargain, and the more they are used, the bigger a bargain they will be.

Most importantly, in my view, no one will get black lung from setting up or monitoring a solar panel or a windmill.

Anyone who complains about the “cost” of solar must explicitly and openly address the costs of thousands of coal miners’ lives shortened by lung and other diseases, the medical expenses they must bear while the companies try to avoid paying, the costs to miners’ families devoting their lives to caring for fathers and husbands and then losing them early, and endless illnesses and contamination of waters and lands that everyone has to deal with in our coal-powered country.

A few areas of “green space” covered by solar panels would seem a negligible price for keeping unpolluted more lands, streams and lakes, and enabling more people to live their full lives.

>>> Mark B. Tauger is an associate professor of history at WVU, specializing in the history of famine, agriculture and agricultural sciences. <<<

See also:

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

S. Thomas Bond February 24, 2015 at 11:37 pm

The $630 billion figure in subsidies from the federal government probably doesn’t include subsidies from the states and those forced from individual citizens by government. The benefits provided by the states in the form of lax and non-enforcement of regulations, favorable legislation, and bending constitutional property rights, such as confiscation by forced pooling are probably greater.

Greater still are the anticipated contributions to the industry by people in shale drilling areas. Loss of property values on land all over the area, contaminated water in a larger portion of it, poisoned streams and mini-brownfields, endless health problems, diminished farm and forest returns with much additional labor required on farms, degraded life style, game made questionably safe, roads and traffic disrupted and more.

And there’s the white elephant in the room, global warming. Caused by hydrocarbon burning, Worst of all is the dimming of science caused by the carbon burning industry, limiting study of alternatives, instead of helping it. Disinformation such as influenced WVU President E. Gordon Gee, mentioned above. What is needed by society instead is a Manhattan Project-like effort to put the best brains to work on what everyone says we must eventually have, anyway.

I’m thinking of progress for the future, not standing back without a viable long-range plan for the future.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: