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Posted On: September 14, 2014

Can Solar Energy Serve Future Energy Needs?

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What do you think?

voted yes
voted no

Representing the sides

PanAtlantic Journal Staff

Matt Samuel

Professor Atomic, Molecular & Chemical Physics, Cornell University, School of Applied and Engineering Physics

PanAtlantic Journal Staff

jonart Bortolotti

Professor of Economics, University of Turin; Director, Sovereign Investment Lab, Bocconi University.


About this debate

Can Solar Energy Serve Future Energy Needs?

About this debate

Sunlight is free. Turning it into electricity produces no greenhouse gases and the process is getting cheaper every year. These facts suggest solar power ought soon to be a big part of the world’s energy mix. However, it is unavailable at night and is most efficiently generated in deserts—places where few potential consumers live and which are often (at least in the case of those near Europe) in countries with questionable governments. Can these problems be overcome? Or is solar power forever destined to be subsidised greenwash that is applied superficially to fossil-fuel-based economies to make them seem more environmentally friendly than they really are?

** This debate was run as a systems test, by systems administrators and management of PanAtlantic Journal. Some of the contents were sourced from a discourse on a similar topic from the economist. To setup a debate on a pertinent topic, please contact

Katherine Pusch
The moderator's opening remarks
Aug 19, 2014 Katherine Pusch

This motion depends on whether the world needs saving, and if so, from what?

There are two conventional answers to the second question. One is, “from the effects of climate change brought about by man-made global warming”. The other is, “from dependence on fossil fuels that are, by definition, a finite resource”.

Both of these answers are challengeable. Few informed people doubt that humanity’s outpourings of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, are altering the climate.

But there is doubt over both how big that effect will be and whether the response should be to try to stop the change or to adapt to it. The former would certainly require an all-hands-to-the-pumps approach to alternative energy, in which solar power would play an important—and probably eventually dominant—role.

The latter would argue for business as usual, with access to the cheapest energy sources (ie, at the moment, fossil fuels) to help bring about the economic growth that will (inter many alia) help pay for adaptation to an altered climate.

Debate Section

PanAtlantic Journal Staff
The proposer's opening remarks
Aug 19, 2014 Matt Samuel

Photovoltaics prices have declined 50% in the past five years, and plans are in place for another 50% decrease. When achieved, photovoltaics will be among the lowest cost options for generating electric energy.

PanAtlantic Journal Staff
The opposition's opening remarks
Aug 19, 2014 jonart Bortolotti

Despite more than 30 years of research, development and deployment, solar energy has been unable to solve the inherent and obdurate problems that make this technology uneconomic for the foreseeable future.

Katherine Pusch
Katherine Pusch answered about 4 years ago

As the rise of fracking has shown, previously inaccessible sources of fossil fuels can be made accessible by technological advance. And yet more untapped resources are known to exist even now, such as methane trapped at the bottom of the sea in icy structures called clathrates. With such abundance, why invest in solar power?

But demand for energy is growing fast—doubling every 40 years. Put another way, human beings will, unless something changes drastically, use about as much energy over the next four decades as they have done in the whole of the past. Humanity and nature, then, are playing a game similar to the wheat-on-the-chessboard game proposed in fable by a cunning subject to a mathematically naive monarch who wanted to reward him. Some of those who see this game ending in disaster for Homo sapiens suggest anticipating the problem by honing solar technologies now—even though they are not sustainable without subsidy—so that they can be deployed rapidly when needed.

Intriguingly, both proposer and opposer have focused on the case of Germany—and have managed to draw diametrically opposing conclusions in doing so.

Matt notes that renewables supply a quarter of Germany’s electricity needs; that solar alone supplies 5% (and on sunny summer days, up to 40%); and that a third of the world’s solar cells are installed there. Clearly, in his view, those cells are a force for good.

Jonart, by contrast, points out that Germany has the second most expensive electricity in Europe; that its subsidy bill for green energy is €20 billion ($28 billion) a year; and that during the winter it has to import power from its neighbours. In his view, the country is teetering on the edge of suffering blackouts.

One reason for the imports is obviously that Germany is not a particularly sunny place, especially in winter. But countries farther south are. With a suitable intercontinental power grid, it would be possible for northern European countries to switch to solar energy by importing it, rather than generating it in situ.

PanAtlantic Journal Staff
Matt Samuel answered about 4 years ago

Indeed, this transformation of our energy system is well under way. It often surprises people to learn that during the past three years within the European Union, photovoltaics, wind and natural gas contributed nearly all the new installed electric generation capacity. In 2012, photovoltaics added 17 gigawatts (GW), wind 12GW and natural gas 5GW (net of retirements). 

Coal and nuclear were negative due to plant retirements. To better foresee how this may play out, one need look no further than Germany as a case study. Germany, with over six times the population density of America and half the solar resource per unit area, has become the global renewable-energy leader among large countries. 

Sceptics often state that solar and wind cannot provide sufficient energy to run a modern economy. Last year, renewables supplied over 25% of Germany’s electric energy consumption. Photovoltaics alone supplied over 5%, up from zero ten years ago. (One-third of the world’s photovoltaic modules are installed in Germany). 

On sunny days photovoltaics often supplies 30-40% of the electricity demand. The German electricity grid has dealt with this influx without the significant disruption also predicted by sceptics. The German government plans for continued expansion of renewable energy. The 2050 target is for renewables to account for 80% of electricity production.


PanAtlantic Journal Staff
jonart Bortolotti answered about 4 years ago

Germany’s renewable energy levy, which subsidises green energy production, rose from €14 billion to €20 billion in just one year. Since the introduction of the levy in 2000, German consumers’ electricity bills have doubled.

Germany has the second most expensive electricity in Europe, with an average price of €0.27 per kilowatt hour. No wonder the chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned that the rapid expansion of green energy programmes is weakening Germany’s competitive advantage in the global economy.

As wealthy homeowners and businesses owners install solar panels on their houses and commercial buildings, low-income families, living in rented apartments, have to foot rocketing electricity bills. Many can no longer afford to pay, so the utilities are cutting off their power.

The German Association of Energy Consumers estimates that up to 800,000 Germans have had their power cut off because they couldn’t pay the country’s rising electricity bills. As Der Spiegel warned last month, solar subsidies are turning electricity into a luxury good, threatening to bring down the country’s green energy transition.

On June 6th this year, Germany’s solar power production touched a new record of 23.4 gigawatts, meeting almost 40% of the country’s entire peak electricity demand. But to understand that this world record is quite meaningless, consider the grid’s narrow escape last winter.

For many weeks in December and January, Germany’s 1.1m solar power systems generated almost no electricity. During much of those overcast winter months, solar panels more or less stopped generating electricity. To prevent blackouts, grid operators had to import nuclear energy from France and the Czech Republic and power up an old oil-fired power plant in Austria.

The government is increasingly concerned about the detrimental impact of solar energy on electricity prices and the stability of the national grid. To stop the solar boom, the government has reduced feed-in tariffs for photovoltaic schemes in the past few years. Since 2010 more than 5,000 companies involved in the solar business have closed, shedding tens of thousands of green jobs.

During the past 12 months, the wave of bankruptcies in solar has devastated much of German industry, while solar investors have lost almost €25 billion on the stockmarket. Now that the new government plans to phase out subsidies altogether, the solar industry is likely to disappear by the end of the decade.

Of all the unintended consequences of Germany’s Energiewende perhaps the most extraordinary is the devastating effect of solar (and wind) power generation on the price of electricity generated by natural gas. Almost 20% of gas power plants in Germany have become unprofitable and face shutdown as renewables flood the electricity grid with preferential energy.

To avoid blackouts, the government has had to subsidise uneconomic gas and coal power stations so that they can be used as a back-up when the sun is not shining and renewables fail to generate sufficient electricity.

No wonder that a growing number of European countries are cutting back subsidies while others, such as Spain and the Czech Republic, have ended support for renewables altogether. Germany too has been scaling back its generous state support. Mrs Merkel has promised to phase out solar subsidies altogether in the next few years. And once the gravy train stops, the future of solar will darken.

PanAtlantic Journal Staff
Matt Samuel answered about 4 years ago

“Can solar energy save the world?” Solar energy surely cannot save the world (assuming it does need saving) all by itself. I assume that our debate moderator is speaking somewhat hyperbolically for the purpose of dramatic impact. The world is, however, in the midst of an evolution in its energy infrastructure.

As we strive to decrease the pollution damage inherent in our current fossil-fuel-intensive society, there is an exciting smorgasbord of technologies stepping up to contribute.

These include solar energy, but also a dizzying array of options such as energy-efficiency improvements in building, industry and transport; other renewables such as wind (which is solar after all), geothermal and biomass; smart grids with features such as demand-side management; distributed and central storage to handle the variability of wind and solar; and improved long-distance power transmission to further smooth this variability.

Even traditional sources are evolving to better compete, with the continuing advance of natural gas, displacing coal and its higher emissions, cleaner coal with the possibility of carbon capture and sequestration, and even nuclear with the possibility of new concepts that may greatly reduce cost and risk.

All these technologies will be competing in a dynamic marketplace. The relative importance of each over time will be determined by how well their developers continue to reduce costs, and to a lesser extent by government policies.

PanAtlantic Journal Staff
jonart Bortolotti answered about 4 years ago

Despite more than 30 years of research, development and deployment, solar energy has been unable to solve the inherent and obdurate problems that make this technology uneconomic for the foreseeable future.

The pitfalls of solar energy are fourfold:

• First, solar energy remains too expensive and can subsist only with the support of government handouts or solar subsidies.

• Second, its multibillion subsidies are causing economic hardship and social conflict as huge amounts of money are being transferred from poor and ordinary families to wealthy green investors.

• Third, photovoltaic energy generation is too irregular and causes huge knock-on problems as a result.

• And finally, where large-scale solar energy competes with conventional energy at a sizeable level, the entire electrical grid faces disruptions and economic damage.

Germany, which has long been the world leader in generating solar electricity, is the best and worst case in point. It demonstrates why solar isn’t working.

More than half of the world’s solar panels are installed in Germany. But solar energy is notoriously unreliable as a power source no matter how much a country has installed. Solar subsidies for German financiers are extremely generous. They guarantee investors an 8-10% annual return for 20 years. Given such an unparalleled offer, it is not surprising that more than a million German families already have installed solar panels.

However, Germany’s unmatched solar boom has saddled the country with obligations of more than €130 billion in subsidies, leading to ever-rising energy prices. These billions are being paid by ordinary families and small and medium-sized businesses in what is undoubtedly one of the biggest wealth transfers from poor to rich in modern European history.




Comments from the floor

Tony Johanson
Tony Johanson answered about 4 years ago

Dear Sir,

I tried to install 1 kw ( 4 photocells) in the roof of my house. The investment reached US$3,800 and only includes installation and inverter.

Six square meters are required for installation. System only operates five hours by day because we are located in the tropic (Panama) with many clouds and rains for 9 months by year.

The return expected is $40 by month. Its means that investment´s return is near to 10% by year. It could be good if my roof will not need repair for ten year.

The reality is that any intervention in the roof will cost much more than US$400. This suggests that return could be less than 8%. In conclusion, if you don´t have space enough in your yard or roof, the photovoltaic energy is not for you. And if you have the conditions and you take the decision to install, it is not a fantastic business.

Ngo Diminas
Ngo Diminas answered about 4 years ago

Dear Sir,

Several points I want to make:
First, many things in this earth are already solar collectors; human later exploit them and turn them into human civilization (e.g., natural gas, thermal, acoustic, oil, etc.).

Although in most cases, they are “very energy efficient” (conversion from solar to oil is efficient), they are not “time efficient”: some forms of such energy needs years or days to create.

If we exploit these forms of energy excessively, human civilization will grow at the same speed as them.
For any form of sustainable future, we need “both energy and time efficient” device: directly converts solar into human usage using minimal time with reasonable conversion rate.

Only solar panel fits such description. What we will need is a large distribution network and better storage device to make it work, before we run out of other resources.

Second, energy demand may saturate at some point, due to advanced technology (e.g., more efficient cars, cloud computing, tablet computer, etc.).

The additional demand can only come from increasing population. If my hypothesis is true, limited solar panels may be able to power the whole population, given good distributed network and constrained human demand

Third, deployment of solar panel is not even restricted to the ground. e.g., imagine the future where smart phones are wirelessly powered (and connected) by directed beams from space solar panel base station (it can always turn sunlight into waves, right?)

Given internet has evolved from a star topology to decentralized bidirectional network, I see world energy network should take the same kind of evolution.

It is the only way to improve information sharing and minimize risk, and hence ongoing human civilization. Solar panels are so far the only means that currently fit as the agents.

Jonas Gonzales
Jonas Gonzales answered about 4 years ago

Dear Sir,

Solar power in itself is not the answer, however I believe there should be a transition from fossil fuel to a cleaner energy. Harnessing natural resources (Solar, Wind, Thermal, Hydroelectric, etc.) should be discussed as an overlapping integrated system and does have a capability to improve our way of life.

I think we should be aware of the shortcomings of solar arrays. I have installed a small off the grid system, and they require large surface area for collection and the wattage collected is highly erratic hour to hour not to mention dropping to zero at night.

Solar is great for remote locations, but less than Ideal in an Urban environment. If you collect remotely and pump power across distances then you suffer a loss.

Another shortcoming in renewable resources is the requirement to store the power for when the equipment is not producing to meet demands. Storing the power will cost as much as the power generation.

In smaller capacities like a car the dated method is in batteries. Here Toxic chemicals are required, reducing the positive benefit of clean energy.

Then next obstacle in a broader sense is replacing inefficient durable goods in homes and manufacturing.

This is critical to lowering the requirement on the infrastructure. But here again, I do not want legislation forcing me to purchase a $30 LED light in place of $.99 bulbs.

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