An article by Daniel Lautzenheiser brought my attention to a story on CNN. The headline was: “Cash-strapped schools spend millions on solar.” It seems that a school district in California (where else?) that has lost more than $20 million in funding in recent years through budget cuts has spent a cool $23 million in federal stimulus dollars with the claim that it will save them money in energy over time. A school district spokesman indicated that the panels would pay for themselves in just 16 years. The problem is, by that time, the panels will almost be at the end of their useful lives of 20 years.
In addition as NCPA adjunct scholar Ken Green notes solar panels are “notorious for losing efficiency when they get dusty. Nobody incorporates that cleaning cost and suboptimal performance in [cost] estimates.” In addition, as the panels get old their efficiency – that is, the energy they produce – declines. This means, the panels may never cover their costs.
In 2009, in response to an article on “net zero” homes being built outside of Austin, I analyzed the builder’s claims that the saving from the energy efficient and energy generating devices would pay for themselves. In a letter to the editor, I provided the calculations which exposed his claims as fantasies:
“. . . the architect, claims that the energy savings would eventually make up for the higher cost of the homes. It won’t. If the green upgrades and solar panels add an additional 15 percent to the net cost of a $270,000 home (that’s $40,500), reducing energy costs $500 a year, it would take more than 80 years to payback the additional costs. It is highly unlikely that any single homeowner will ever see the payback. Worse, even if the house lasted for hundreds of years, since, under the best circumstances, the typical solar panel (the largest part of the bill) has a lifespan of approximately 20 years before it needs to be replaced, the savings in energy will never recoup costs of the solar installation.”
In the present cast, the school district, or more accurately the city or state, will also have to ensure that there is enough conventional power to provide backup at night or on cloudy days or to regulate power spikes or declines. That’s an additional cost that should count against the cost of the project.
Sadly, the school districts in California that are adopting solar energy or other “green” energy devices are quickly becoming the rule, not the exception as cities, school districts and whole states buy into the green building eco-fad. My friend and colleague Todd Myers has written extensively concerning the broken promises of Green Buildings.
A growing number of public buildings and new schools are being constructed with energy conservation and reduced resource use in mind. Not a bad idea, unfortunately, the ideal is rarely attained in practice.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the gold standard for green building. The more an architect incorporates the principles or criteria of LEED, the greater the energy savings and improved performance should be. However, Myers analysis of LEED schools in
Washington State shows that they perform no better and often worse, than newly build schools not following LEED designs.
In fact, Myers found that in no case was the green school the most energy-efficient in the district. In some cases the green schools were more efficient than the most recently built nongreen school, but the difference between them was often very small. In no case were the energy costs for a green
school 30 percent less than at comparable schools as supporters had projected. And outside the pilot districts, energy costs at three green schools were at least 25 percent higher than the most-efficient nongreen school in the same district.
The moral of the story: Proponents of green energy and green building designs promise a lot, but the technologies they promote, delivery few measurable benefits at high costs. Which means, in a time of budgetary belt tightening, perhaps green energy/building delusions should be
among the first policies we jettison.