Ads and uncertanties undermine solar investments

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Fossil fuel interests and their allies are spending millions of dollars on advertising and publications to undermine support for action on climate change and to assure the public that abundant sources of coal, oil and natural gas are available that will allow society to continue its current level of consumption. This cornucopian thinking is usually linked with a plea to gut governmental regulations aimed at limiting the adverse environmental consequences of increased energy production and consumption.

Ignored in this effort to expand our dependence on fossil fuels and eliminate environmental protections is the key notion of energy return on energy invested. To use energy, energy must be consumed in securing the new energy source and prepare it for use in our society. We used the easy-to-find oil first, and only needed to expend one barrel of oil to provide 100 barrels of useful energy. Oil secured from deep-ocean drilling today only yields nine barrels of oil from one barrel of energy expended. At a 9:1 ratio, it is likely to prove extremely difficult providing the energy needed to operate our existing infrastructure. Oil produced from tar sands only yields five useful barrels, and oil from oil shale only yields three useful barrels. Wind has a 20:1 ratio and solar 10:1.

If we invest in tar sands and oil shale, what energy and money will be left for renewable energy?

Adding to public confusion are the conflicting claims of job losses and gains. Some industry estimates regarding potential jobs coming from the expanded development of the Canadian tar sands project have been as high as 2 million new jobs, while another independently-funded study indicates only 1,500 part-time jobs will be created.

Considering the highly automated manufacturing processes in making solar cells, a relatively small labor force is involved. The installation of solar systems is the labor-intensive side of the industry. Once installed, they are very reliable, and relatively few service jobs are needed. If the country embarks on a major build-out of the solar industry, there would be a substantial number of jobs designing and installing the systems.

Subsidies are seen as essential for its continued growth. While all energy sources are subsidized, the renewable energy industry fears it will suffer the most from the fervor to cut taxes and federal and state programs. The federal 1603 cash grant program that stimulated renewable energy investments will expire at the end of the year, and its chances of being renewed appear slim.

The net effect of these conflicting views and uncertainties is to confuse the public and leave them unsure of what actions to take.

It is time to cut through the confusion and invest in solar energy. Prices are low, and the systems are highly reliable. We can think of investing in solar energy as buying a form of insurance for protection from future blackouts and price increases. The community also benefits if local firms are hired to install systems, as the money spent is recirculated within the community.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2011, issue