Solar panels are not the solution…

Before we hurry covering everything with solar panels, let’s reason a bit further, because since my first experiences with renewable energy, many new insights have emerged.

Those first experiences I had when building a “Bicycle wheel windmill”, as described in the “Windwerkboek” of the time. [1] ( Wind Work Guide). By closing the spaces between two spokes with tape you create a kind of wing profile. Primitive, but it worked more or less. With strong wind, the bicycle headlight, which was attached to the wheel with a dynamo, started shining.

Later, now 25 years ago, I placed the first two solar panels on my roof. Back then 0.5 m2 each, 800 guilders a piece ( 350 Euro). I had one for free, by the way. It had been used for a trade-fair, and was stored for a eventual follow up event, which did not come…. 😉 Before I mounted it on the roof, it functioned in my office for a few years, in front of the window, with a 12V fridge attached….

Those two panels, then still in the impossible size of 50 by 100 cm, they did match at all with usual roof sizes, each produced a maximum of 50 kWh / year. Together with a small battery I created a 12 volt network in the house. For a kind of emergency lighting in the corridors, lighting for the shed without having to dig in an expensive outdoor cable, and the children each had a bedside lamp, for reading in the evening in sunlight!

The future seemed simple. At the time I did not know what I know now, after years of studying closing cycles. And the more I explore the consequences of that, the worse it gets, or if you prefer, the story unfolds in a more clear manner. Because solar panels do supply electricity from sunlight, but there is still a whole world behind that. I would like to summarize here what I concluded over the years, sometimes in earlier articles, but brought together here.

1 CO2 emissions rise

To start at the beginning: Solar energy isn’t for free, solar panels have to be produced for that, which costs materials and energy. And for the moment, that energy is mainly fossil fuel and therefore causes CO2 emissions. This is called embodied energy or Embodied Carbon. More about this in this paper [2]. And after about 4 years (at best), such a panel will have produced more renewable energy than it has cost to be produced itself. Nevertheless, the CO2 emissions have not been eliminated, they took place right from the start. And that leads to the following finding, which I described extensively before:

If we install the same amount or more every year, which we will since we are in ‘energy-transition’, it actually does not contribute to CO2 reduction. In fact, then the CO2 emissions increase, instead of decreasing. More CO2 emissions are added every year before the previous panels are compensated. [3] The emissions are higher than the replacement by CO2 emission free energy. And if that expansion lasts until 2050, when we have to be at 0-CO2 emissions, it will have backfired , and surprise, our policy did not work…

2 effective power is low

At the time of my 12 Volt network, the efficiency of solar panels was about 10%, and nowadays it is sometimes even 20%, or higher in laboratories. But is that also effective 20%?

If we take into account the depletion of materials, it is nowhere near 1%. After all, the efficiency data only account for the energy operations side. But energy flows are always entangled with materials flows, and vice versa. In addition to embodied energy, you must also include depletion, or the compensation thereof: the “circular energy”, the energy to close the cycle, to replenish the stocks. (By the way, that is not the circular as meant in the ‘circular economy’, which is actually about ‘linear slowing down’! [4]) . Just as with the use of wood , the forest is replanted, otherwise we would run out of trees, you will also have to charge for renewal for raw materials that are not renewed. To take into account energy for renewal, otherwise there is ‘material discrimination’ between renewed and non renewed materials. And for metals, the stock must then be restored by collecting diluted iron molecules from the background. For example, by filtering them from ocean water, where they eventually end up. That takes energy. Calculating this shows that energy from 130 m2 of solar panels is needed, permanently, to restore the stock of concentrated materials needed to produce 1 m2 of solar panel, similar like the land for replenishing that forest. [5] And the effective energy gains in that case drop to well below 1%.

3 blocks biomass growth

Panels, when placed in large fields on agricultural land, block the growth of “serious” biomass, say trees and forests, which are needed in the billions to capture CO2. [6] And forests do that with somewhere between 1 to 2% efficiency, much more in fact as solar panels . And we need those trees as well as a necessary building material in the equally desperately needed transition to biobased construction ( and store the CO2 that way). [7]

4 money keeps on rolling

Then the practical side: the financial side. Since every policy is aimed at “earning” money from sustainable energy. So suppose you put the roof full of solar panels, and after about 7 years , the financial pay back time, you start earning money, the energy bill will be lower. And you will not burn that extra money , you are going to spend it, an extra city trip somewhere in Europe, and thus nullify the environmental benefits.

But that is not all: what happens with the money with which a solar panel is purchased? That has not disappeared or withdrawn from the market. The salesman earns from it, and he and his staff take it on vacation. These are the Chinese who flood Amsterdam. The CO2 emissions from flying are not even counted in the policy plans. Besides, the money for flying ends up in the pockets of the airlines, and from that the pilots have a heated swimming pool built in their backyard. And so on. The money continues to roam around and cause damage in the form of CO2 emissions. . Despite the good intention of the first purchase of a solar panel, it makes no sense as long as we do not adjust the monetary system.

In short, the large-scale rollout of solar panels is counterproductive. In general, and certainly when we have to seriously reduce CO2 within 10 to 20 years, and thus greatly expand the number of solar panels. That is mopping with the tap running. (Dutch expression. Eng: ‘pushing water uphill’)

Solar panels are not going to save us. Perhaps in the future, OPV, Organic Photovoltaic energy, solar cells made from biobased materials, will have fewer disadvantages. But we’ll have to get our act together first. To drastically reduce energy use,  more precise energy demand (of ourselves, our life styles, and of the panel production), so that we need much, much less panels, and therefore get rid of that CO2 lock-in sooner, while at the same time ensure that we cannot earn money from installing solar panels….




How many solar panels are there already in the Netherlands? With regard to solar panels, there is now 6 874 MW of installed capacity. [8] That equates to approximately 26.5 million panels (if I calculate with 260 Wp per panel). Suppose we increase that to 35 million, then every Dutch person has 2 panels. And then stop. By that time we are in 2022, and with 4 more years before they are net CO2, it will be 2026. That gives us just 4 years advantage before we need to have halved the emissions by 2030. If we also make sure that no one makes a profit, it could still have some effect, along with a drastic reduction in energy demand. In other words: I am thinking of a maximum of two panels per person, a 12 V network, and a small battery. During the day the radio and communication devices work, in the evening there is some LED light and a few hours of TV. That’s it, in fact….



[1] . Je had toen ook nog het Zonwerkboek , Kevin McCartney, Nederlandse bewerking Evert Sjoerdsma. Ekologische uitgeverij, 1982. Ik heb het uitgeleend en ben het kwijt…. Al ging dat vooral over thermische zonne energie. Zag hier nog geweldige recensie:

[2] Energy payback time (EPBT) and energy return on energy invested (EROI) of solar photovoltaic systems: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Khagendra et all, 2015, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews



[5] Background: plus references, And see the calculation file: MAXergy 2-0 comp PVmc v2 010116, here:

[6] [6] planting billions of trees: