Saturday, August 08, 2009


Solar Panels and Dust

Everyone is so bullish on renewables these days that you can’t tell them anything negative. One problem with solar panels that I have repeatedly raised is dust. It’s everywhere, and the atmosphere is full of it — it’s estimated that about 1,000 tons of dust fall to Earth from space each year. That’s a lot of dust, and it coats everything, including solar panels. And more dust is kicked up by the wind.

An article that describes the seriousness of this problem is Dust clouds sap UAE's solar panels’ power. Desert countries are of course best suited to photovoltaic generation, but keep in mind that arid regions also have a bigger problem with dust, and you can get a glimpse of just how big from this article. That means PV panels have to be frequently cleaned to maintain optimum power production, and that of course requires a further expenditure of energy for maintenance.

Oh, and did I mention that fossil fuels are needed to make solar panels? But I digress.

Now we have ideas for setting up vast solar arrays in desert countries and exporting the power to other countries. And the bigger the solar park, the more people and machines will be needed to keep making the rounds and cleaning the panels, especially after a dust storm. This continuing expenditure of energy for maintenance needs to be taken into account. If cleaning is neglected, then before you know it a solar park’s output will drop to half or even below as dust continues to accumulate.

In fact, all renewable energy installations will likewise need maintenance, which in turn requires access roads, vehicles, boats (if offshore), personnel, and other various energy expenditures. Much of it will be dependent on fossil fuels. I’m all in favor of building renewable energy projects, but proponents need to cool their heads and think more rationally about what renewable energy hardware will cost over the long term.

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