Issue Date: May 16, 2011
Considering True Costs
After reading “Making Solar Panels Greener” and Rudy Baum’s editorial about the Republican budget war on science, I have to agree that photovoltaic technology should be scrutinized from cradle to grave (C&EN, Feb. 21, page 37, and Feb. 28, page 3). To be thorough though, oil, coal, and nuclear should also be assessed and normalized to the same high, yet reasonable, standards.
Photovoltaic and any other renewable energy sources are traditionally treated as an elitist flavor of energy reserved for aging hippies, bright-eyed environmentalists, and wealthy progressives who would rather die than vote Republican. But when regular Americans plug in their TVs to watch the cornucopia of advertisements sprinkled with sports and leisure, they do not care about the color of their electrons. They care about cost.
A 1997 report by the International Center for Technology Assessment (www.icta.org/doc/Real%20Price%20of%20Gasoline.pdf) describes the true cost of gasoline, factoring in hidden costs and intangibles such as tax breaks, subsidies, oil-spill cleanup, air pollution, and Department of Defense protection of supply routes. Back then, gas cost the consumer a little over $1.00 per gal at the pump but anywhere from $5.60 to $14.14 per gal after factoring in all the socialized costs. Although nuclear power was touted as “too cheap to meter” and coal is essentially free—minus the cost of dynamite to remove West Virginia mountaintops—these standard sources of energy might not look so rosy when placed on an even playing field.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
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