Myhrvold on Solar: Blue is a Kind of Black

Superfreakonomics contains a number of significant misleading claims about climate change and clean energy, but the one I found most shocking was the contention that solar panels actually make the world warmer because they’re black. Solar panels are not black. They’re usually blue. This is an easily verifiable fact. This is a photo of a company I visited in Dresden where they manufacture solar panels. Their office is covered in solar panels. Blue solar panels:


They wouldn’t let us take pictures inside their factory so as to discourage industrial espionage by the Chinese (or so they said), but I can assure you that what they were manufacturing was blue solar panels. But if you look at their website you can clearly see that they’re blue. During the tour someone even asked why the solar panels are blue. We were told that you can make them any color if there’s some particular desire for funny-colored ones, but they determined that this particular shade of blue is the most efficient one to use. And that’s why most solar panels are blue.

So two quick takeaway lessons from that chat. One is that solar panels are usually blue. The other is that contra Levitt, Dubner, and Nathan Myhrvold the guys who build solar panels aren’t idiots who’ve never considered the fact that different colored material has different light-absorption properties.

Remarkably, however, Levitt and Dubner choose not to simply admit that quoting Myhrvold as saying that solar panels are black was a sloppy error that they’ll correct in the future. Instead, they had him write a post on their blog in which he digs in his heels on the black point, insisting (really) that blue solar panels are in some sense really black so his statement that “[t]he problem with solar cells is that they’re black” was accurate even though it’s not, in fact, true that solar cells are black. Then as Nicholas Weaver points out he adds new errors:

He compares the cost of running a coal plant with the cost of building a solar plant, neglecting that we need to construct vastly more power plants to both meet growing demand and to deal with end-of-life on old, inefficient plants. Even then, the break even point is less than 3 years, by his inflate-the-cost of solar figure!

This is really insane. The obvious problem with solar power is that it doesn’t work when the sun isn’t shining. Thus barring some really miraculous developments in energy storage, we’re going to need a lot of non-solar power. But that still leaves plenty of room for the deployment of solar panels, especially in places that tend to be sunny. Germany uses a lot more solar power than we do, despite being a very non-sunny country, and nonetheless manages to exist as an advanced industrial society. There are limits to what can be realistically done in this regard, but we’re not currently pushing up against them. There’s no reason for this to be controversial and certainly no reason for people to be making ludicrous claims about the color of objects.