The color of solar cells — and their short energy payback — are trivial factors when considering the huge climate benefit they provide in avoiding the release of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels.
That was a central point in my first post debunking the error-riddled book Superfreakonomics. By failing to retract the many glaring errors I pointed out in my original post weeks ago — and instead blowing an aerosol smokescreen with false claims that Caldeira did not say the book misrepresented his views (see here) — Levitt brought upon himself the detailed and devastating takedown by Geophysicist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, which focused on the same exact paragraph in the book that I debunked:
“A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat “” which contributed to global warming.”
In my post, I noted that there were three and a half major howlers in this one tiny paragraph and that California Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld called this “patent nonsense” when I read it to him. Within minutes of my posting, a former lead engineer at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab “emailed me to be sure I don’t miss the forest for the trees here in debunking this,” as I wrote at the time. He pointed out that climatologist Ken Caldeira, of all people, had an analysis showing it was trivial:
As Ken Caldeira so grippingly points out (and I tried to make graphically clear in my Stanford talk last year), each molecule of CO2 released thermal energy when it was formed “” that’s why we formed it. In the case of electricity generation, about 1/3 of its thermal energy went out a wire as electric power, the rest was released promptly as waste heat. But each molecule of CO2, during its subsequent lifetime in the atmosphere, traps 100,000 times more heat than was released during its formation.
A hundred thousand is a big number. It means that running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to [the heat given off by] two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period. The warming is delivered over time, not promptly, but that don’t matter; the planetary heating is accrued, the accountants would say, the moment you hit the switch.
And so I immediately added that in the original debunking (see here), which Levitt and Dubner obviously read and chose to ignore.
The graphic above is a PowerPoint from the engineer meant to illustrate the factor of 100,000.
Several people asked me for the analysis that derived the factor of 100,000. Climatologist Ken Caldeira was kind enough to share it with me and give me authority to post it. It is a previously-unpublished joint analysis by Caldeira and NYU’s Martin Hoffert titled, “Warming from fossil fuels,” which is now posted here. The abstract reads: