The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘fraud’ as the wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain, or a person intending or thing intended to deceive. Okay. So how could this word possibly be connected with ‘solar‘, an adjective relating to or determined by the sun or its rays? Howard Hayden, in his controversial book ‘The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World“, claims that this is indeed a suitable epithet for renewable energy. It’s a strong claim. Here, I briefly review his arguments: strong and weak.
Hayden is an Emeritus Professor of Physics the University of Connecticut, and is editor of The Energy Advocate, a monthly newsletter promoting energy and technology, which is openly sceptical about a human role in global warming. Some critical analysis of his position on the anthropogenic contribution to climate change are described here and here. This provides a necessary context for understanding his motivation for writing the book — but is his ‘left field’ view on climate a sufficient basis for rejecting his energy arguments?
No. I think people’s arguments should be judged based on what they say on a particular topic (and why they say it), not on the basis of their views on other matters. Take Ian Plimer. A fine mining geologist and an excellent teacher. Almost completely wrong (in my view, and that of many others) on the drivers of climate change, yet quite right on the drivers of continental drift (plate tectonics) and evolution (natural selection).
Hayden, in other writings, thinks climate change is likely to be unrelated to human activity. Yet in The Solar Fraud, he doesn’t dwell on global warming — he hardly mentions it in fact. When he does, it’s to say that warming this century will be somewhere between 0 and 5C (consensus view is 1.1 to 6.4C, so not that far out). This was in the context of the trivial nature of the Kyoto targets — a fact I think everyone agrees upon, but in the context that these were intended to be a launching pad rather than a landing platform. So let’s focus on his energy supply and generation arguments, and see if they stack up.
The first question you might ask is: “Well what about wind, wave, hydropower, biomass, and so on?”. Well, actually, that’s all ultimately derived from solar power, and Hayden deals with them all. About the only ‘renewable’ energy sources that are not solar powered are geothermal (more like a minable resource, but like energy from uranium and thorium, there’s plenty of it) and tidal energy. He talks a little about these also.
Hayden’s basic thesis is this: solar energy is diffuse (and always will be) and variable (and this is expensive/impossible to compensate for). From the blurb:
Solar energy has its uses many of them but running the world isnt one of them. Solar energy has always and will always provide some fraction of the worlds energy budget. The question is how much? By and large, that fraction has been on a steady decline not just for decades, but for centuries. The Solar Fraud presents the physics behind the hype, explaining why the problem is not technology, but rather the dilute nature of sunlight.
On their own, the diffuse and variable nature of solar energy are not a show stopper. Solar clearly has a role to play. But the subtler question Hayden instead asks is: how does the diffuse and variable (intermittent) nature of solar energy constrain the scale of its application to energy supply in a consumer society? Ted Trainer asked basically the same question, and concluded that these two factors impose severe constraints, but that we must use solar power anyway (and live far more simply, with much lower energy demands that do not grow). Hayden also argues that these factors turn out to be incredibly constraining, but says a solution is possible (read on).
The first part of the book provides an historical survey of two kinds. One is an interesting exploration into the history of energy (mostly in America) — how we were once a 100% solar society, and how that all changed following the industrial revolution. It made me think of another situation in our deeper past. Once the first farmers took the path of a sedentary agricultural system, they were able to support a flourishing civilisation. But they could never again return to a hunter-gatherer situation, however ‘simpler’ (and sometimes easier) that life may have been. So to with modern society — we will only return to a pre-industrial, low energy existence if circumstances force it upon us, and we’ll fight tooth and nail, all the way down.
The other is a history of solar advocacy. Hayden is very harsh here — repeatedly (perhaps unnecessarily) so, but he’s trying to make a fundamental point and is using the tool of ‘words past spoken’ to do it. Grand claims have certainly been made about the huge potential of solar energy for decades, and yet time and again, those predictions have miserably failed to materialise. Even today, ‘technosolar’ (photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind farms, wave generators, etc.) generates quite a bit less than 1% of global energy use. Yet if you believed the heady predictions of the 1970s and 80s, it should now have been a major player — in the 10s of % at least, perhaps up to half of our energy needs. Something went wrong — and is still going wrong. We’re not where we ‘should’ be, and not heading there.
One view is that this failure stems from a lack of R&D support by government and a conspiracy of vested fossil fuel interests to hold it back. Another is that it is reflective of a suite of fundamental and insuperable technological challenges, which stay the hand of the wise investor. In truth, it’s probably a bit of both.
The fraud, Hayden claims, is in the spin doctoring of what he calls ‘solar sirens, Pollyannas, cheer leaders and puppeteers’. Lying with statistics. For instance, someone has 50 cents in one year and 75 cents the next — you’ve got 50% more cash. But would you rather have $10,000 in one year and $10,100 the next? You’re wealth has only grown by 1% in a year, but you’re a lot richer in capital, and have earned 400 times more in a year compared to in the first case. The first example is solar growth, the other is nuclear. There are numerous other real-world examples cited. You can argue the details with me in the comments, but the facts on this point are clear. Hayden gives 30 odd pages which detail such sleight-of-hand tactics to make things seem quite different to uncomfortable realities.
Most of the rest of the book is quite technical — but the quantitative workings are well worth delving into, if you want to understand the real efficiency and ultimate limitations on wind, waves, solar electric and concentrating solar power. Chapter by chapter, it works through the different solar energy sources — biomass, hydro, wind, direct solar heat, solar mirrors and photocells, and the other solar miscellanea.
It notes that by far the two most used ones (biomass and hydro) have something special in common — they are a form of stored, rather than instantly delivered energy. That’s useful. It shows how, no matter your level of technological sophistication and efficiency of energy conversion, it is impossible to derive more solar energy from a unit of land than that which falls upon it from space — which is a lot globally, but spread incredibly thinly, like hot butter scraped over too much bread (I love that line from Lord of the Rings). There is nothing you can ever do to overcome the problem of diffuse solar energy — vast areas will always be required to harness it in significant volumes.
The other theme is intermittency — variability — with the storage and backup requirements and low ‘quality’ of power supply that results. This was a particularly telling point — utilities really dislike managing low quality (fluctuating and periodically pulsing) inputs, because it makes it tough to maintain a standard and constant electrical frequency and demands micromangement of spinning reserve in order to to dispatch the constant load we expect. As noted above, variability also entails a severe storage problem — something Hayden mostly doesn’t bother to dissect, except to note that it’s awfully difficult and inefficient to store energy, which may be why no one is currently doing it. Trainer deals with this in much more detail. I’d note myself that thermal storage in concentrating solar plants is the most promising option here, but cannot be used to provide large amounts of power for extended periods — its obvious and useful role is in providing energy during the night time outage. Photovoltaics and wind have more problems in this regard.
I’m tempted to go on and on, highlighting both the interesting things Hayden says about solar power, and nitpicking at some of the ‘red herrings’ he raises. But I won’t do that. Read the book and find them yourself. If readers have specific questions or demand more explanation about points I’ve mentioned above, then I’ll endeavour to cite some more detailed examples from the book. Ask away — there’s plenty in those pages of interest.
In conclusion, people seem to mostly have one of two polarised reactions to this book. Many are appalled, and view Hayden’s somewhat sardonic tone and often sniping commentary on others as reason enough to dismiss whatever he might have to say. Others are delighted at his technical arguments, and are happy to foist them forward in order to prove that we must continue burning coal, or else switch to an alternative reliable, high capacity energy source such as nuclear. Go look at the comments on the book at the Amazon.com website to see what I mean.
I’m not delighted. But I’m appalled either. For me it’s more a glum acceptance that Hayden is mostly right about the severe limitations of solar power, but also a determination not to be overcome by a resigned attitude that nothing can be done to fix our deeply rooted energy problems. There are solutions!
Fossil fuels were a wonderful aid in constructing our modern world, and all the technological marvels and high standard of living it has brought to those in the developed world who have most benefited from their use. Of course, we are now increasingly coming to understand the high price we’ve paid for this — climate disruption, acid rain, mercury poisoning, sulphate and nitrates choking our air. Coal is not the black devil, it’s the Serpent in the Garden. Solar energy can’t restore The Apple — we’ve already plucked it and taken that fateful bite. Our only recourse is to pick another fruit from another tree, and not look back longingly to the lost Garden.
To quote Hayden (pg VII, Preface to the 2nd Edition):
“Another complaint [about the first edition] is that, after finding solar energy utterly inadequate to run the world, I offer no solutions. By comparison Paul and Anne Ehrlich have also concluded that renewable sources can’t supply enough energy, but offer no salvation, save that they would like the population miraculously to revert to pre-industrial levels without somehow causing the deaths of a few billion people.
I will offer two words of salvation: Know nukes.”