By Mencken’s Ghost
Feb. 1, 2012
In one of the rare times that I have risked brain damage by watching television news, I recently watched a chirpy segment on the local Fox affiliate about a high school in Buckeye, Ariz. that has installed acres of solar panels to generate its own electrical power.
The bad news is that I have incurred slight brain damage from watching the segment. The good news is that I can now get one of those ubiquitous handicap mirror hangers that allow people without serious disabilities to park in those ubiquitous handicap parking places, which even can be found at trailheads and outside of health clubs. The nation might not be producing the brightest people in the world, but it certainly leads the world in producing the most sensitive, caring and gullible ones.
Anyway, the chirpy segment featured a chirpy school administrator chirping about the school saving a couple hundred thousand dollars in utility bills a year and being a model of environmental responsibility for the students.
My damaged brain immediately began having demented thoughts. It wondered, for example, why public institutions are installing solar power to a greater degree than private businesses are. After all, if businesses are as greedy, money-hungry and despicable as they are portrayed in the media and by the White House, it would seem that in the interest of cutting costs and improving the bottom line, they would be racing to install solar power, if it were indeed more cost-effective than fossil power.
Incidentally, have you noticed that media businesses are not portrayed as greedy, money-hungry and despicable by the media?
Although damaged, my brain was still able to remember that natural gas prices are falling due to a glut of this fossil fuel, which is used more and more to generate electricity. My brain waited anxiously for the chirpy reporter to ask the chirpy school administrator about this, or at least about a cost comparison between solar power and fossil power, or at least about the life expectancy of solar panels, or at least about how much it costs to keep them clean in the desert, where blowing dust is common and where mud can fall out of the sky during rain storms. It is still waiting.
The segment did mention that the panels cost $19 million. But this was mentioned so quickly among all the chirping that my dazed brain almost missed it.
Upon hearing this, my brain exclaimed “Ah-ha!” and directed me to my computer to do a Google search on the life expectancy of solar panels. If the life expectancy were known, a rough estimate of the annual cost of the school’s panels could be determined by dividing the $19 million by the number of years of life expectancy. This number could then be compared against the annual cost of fossil power to determine if solar power is actually cost-effective.
Something strange happened in the Google search, however. The search listed pages of sources that were either companies in the solar industry, or shills for the industry, or media or academic sources that have a pro-solar bias. In other words, the supposed brightest minds in the world that reside at the supposed brightest company in the world, Google, have produced a search engine that is as trustworthy and credible as television news.
In any event, the consensus of these sources was that the panels have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years. Therefore, the annual cost of solar power for the high school is somewhere between $633,000 and $950,000, calculated as follows:
$19 million divided by 30 years = $633,000
$19 million divided by 20 years = $950,000
These costs exceed the annual utility savings reported by the chirpy newscast.
Of course, a reliable cost-benefit analysis would be more complicated than this. For one thing, maintenance costs have to be added to the cost of the solar panels. For another, the cost of fossil power is not going to remain fixed over the next 20 to 30 years, but the cost of the school’s installed solar panels will remain fixed over their life expectancy, except for the cost of maintaining them. The time value of money also comes into play.
It then dawned on my enfeebled brain that it would be a great learning opportunity if students at the chirpy green high school were given an assignment to calculate the true costs and benefits of solar (and wind) power, including how much land across the country would have to be converted from farming to power generation for fossil power to be replaced. They would learn economics, finance, math, science, geography, and a healthy skepticism about not only Internet searches but also about what they are told by the government, by public schools, and by the media.
That my brain would think such a crazy thought is proof that I am not right in the head. Well, at least I’ll be able to park near the door at the mall.
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at email@example.com.