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Does Solar Energy Beat Natural Gas?

A recent CNBC.com piece at asked the question: “Does the solar industry have a PR problem?” Unfortunately, the story itself is the PR problem.

The piece cited a March study from two reputable organizations, SolarTech and San Jose University, which found that only 39% of Americans think solar is reliable and only 11 percent think it’s affordable.

The article was attempting to address an important point: That solar companies still have a lot to do to counter perceptions that solar doesn’t work. But rather than take a detailed look at customer experiences to actually figure out if solar is working, or examine the important steps solar companies are taking to address the problem, the reporter highlights the opinions of companies with a direct financial interest in pushing the perception that solar doesn’t work:

Jim Nelson, CEO of solar manufacturer Solar3D, says that, true to the perception, solar technology is not quite ready for prime time.

The problem, says Nelson, is that solar is generally still not price competitive with fossil fuels for energy generation. Paradoxically, government efforts to subsidize the purchase of solar panels actually slow down the adoption of innovation that should ultimately make renewable energy more affordable.

By encouraging consumers to buy immature and inferior solar technology right now, government subsidies risk locking people into solar systems that are inefficient, expensive, and may or may not ultimately pay off to the consumer. “They’re encouraging people to use things that don’t work,” he says….

Tim Young, CEO of solar cell manufacturer HyperSolar, says that a household solar installation using photovaltic, PV, cells — wherein light is converted into electricity by displacing electrons in silicon cells — typically needs 10 years to pay for itself, and after 20 years those cells will have substantially degraded.

For people who are either very well-off, very passionate about green energy, or both, that could be a fine trade-off. But for the mass consumer — or for that matter for power-supplying utilities — that’s a big negative for now.

Doesn’t work? A big negative?

Let’s be very clear: These two companies don’t even have a product yet. They’re both working on prototypes for new solar cells (we covered Solar 3D in a previous post.) And at this very early stage of development, their success depends in part on convincing people that today’s technologies don’t work.