Solar’s woes minimal in comparison

By Lanny Sinkin
Guest OpEd – San Antonio Express-News

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Proponents of nuclear and fossil fuels are claiming all energy sources, including solar, have risks. ("All forms of energy have risk," Business, March 26). When you delve into the true nature of those risks, there really is no comparison.

There is no solar accident that even begins to approach the destructiveness of a nuclear reactor meltdown. Solar relies on a reactor that is perfectly placed — 93 million miles from Earth.

A major solar spill is what we call a nice day, hardly comparable to the Deepwater Horizon killing 11 people and producing a massive release of oil.

Replacing fossil fuel-generated electricity with solar dramatically reduces green house gases and helps to mitigate the worst effects of climate instability — a benefit, not a risk.

To compare solar risks to the risks from continued reliance on nuclear and fossil fuels is not rational, let alone logical.

The solar risks identified in the article are that "solar is expensive" and "hard to deploy at the necessary scale."

Solar costs are already below the price of proposed new nuclear projects. The price of nuclear projects will almost certainly increase as a result of the Japan catastrophe. The real cost of the Japanese nuclear plants will now include the billions of dollars spent to contain the meltdowns and deal with the aftermath.

Southern California Edison chose a future based on solar, rather than natural gas, for economic reasons. Solar costs are also within the competitive range with coal when the cost of building a coal plant is included. If coal had to pay for its health, environmental and climate-change damage, coal would not compete with solar.

As to installing enough to meet demand, I asked an engineer involved in developing the San Diego solar plan to estimate the amount of solar we could put on rooftops in San Antonio. His back-of-the-envelope estimate was 4,000 megawatts. By way of comparison, the new Spruce 2 coal plant is 750 megawatts.

The sidebar to the article says the best locations for solar "are far from population areas, so they require costly transmission infrastructure." While solar potential to the west is higher, we don’t need to go there. San Antonio rooftops are highly productive and feed into the existing transmission infrastructure.

The sidebar says "solar can’t be stored (although solar heat can for a while)." There is a concentrated solar plant being built in Spain that heats up an oil that stores enough heat to generate electricity for 15 hours after the sun goes down. There is ice storage, compressed air, pumped water, flywheels and a host of other storage technologies rapidly maturing or already in use.

The sidebar then gets ridiculous by saying, "Turbines and panels pose a threat to birds." There are problems with wind turbines killing birds and bats. We know of no recorded instance of a solar panel harming a bird in any way.

San Antonio can believe the spin and reluctantly move forward on solar. Or we can follow the bold leadership coming from CPS Energy and make San Antonio the national leader in solar.

We can build as much solar as we have the will to build. The real risk would be a failure to fully embrace our solar potential.

Lanny Sinkin is executive director of Solar San Antonio.

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