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Is Solar Always Green? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

solarbusArguably, there can be no cleaner source of energy than the sun. If you place a black container filled with water in the sun, you'll heat water at no cost and with no appreciable environmental impact. That's well and good, but impractical if you want to take a shower at 3AM, or need to boil water for cooking.

Ultimately, what we need is electricity, as our culture is based on electrical devices. So how does one turn solar power into electricity? While you could create a solar furnace that boiled water to produce steam that powered a generator, the cost and size are prohibitive. It's far more reasonable to use solar panels. But are they "green"?

That's a tough question to answer. Mac Life magazine recently ran this report by writer Jan Hughes, which offers a concise look at the pros and cons of solar.  Pros: "free" energy, renewable, available anwhere there's sun. Cons: toxic waste being inresponsibly disposed of by makers, energy intensive creation, and the obvious 'doesnt work when it's dark' problem.

This article from Low Tech Magazine claims that solar actually produces more green house gases than even coal, and coal is a lot more convenient.

In Vermont, the Solar Bus is a common site. It's an old school bus that runs on bio-diesel (arguably a solar energy, [though so are fossil fuels]) covered with solar panels and filled with batteries. The bus travels around and powers events such as outdoor movies, concerts, etc. I applaud the ingenuity, but given the above two stories, is it a "green" idea? According to the solar bus site, it is.

So who do you listen to?

It's not easy, but you have to apply Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit to the problem. Let's apply a bit of it to the Solar Bus:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

Ok, so on the Solar Bus site, there is a link to an "independent" study that supports the claim that solar panels produce more energy than they require to be made. This study was conducted by a representative of Siemens Solar Industries, and here's a link to solar products sold by Siemens. Siemens is arguably an expert on the subject, but they have a built-in bias that must be considered. That's hardly "independent," and I have to say that the Solar Bus fails to defend their claim there.

  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

There is only the one study from Siemens. No dissenting view is presented, so again, the Solar Bus fails to make its case.

  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").

In this case, though the Solar Bus may claim authority on issues of solar power, that authority carries no weight as the evidence dictates the conclusion.

  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

This doesn't apply neatly in this case, but it's clear that the Solar Bus is convinced that solar is a good thing. Nothing on the site suggests that there may be reason to doubt that.

  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.

I think this is the biggest fault with the Solar Bus. The creator had an interesting idea, clearly invested a lot of time and money into it, and if the evidence points to his conclusion being wrong, he's going to be in a hard place. We have to consider the possibility that the Solar Bus will defends its opinion beyond reasonable limits.

Another thing that bothers me about the Solar Bus (and I have discussed this with them) is the politicized message of the site. Science isn't about politics, it's about evidence. And while the Solar Bus doesn't claim to be scientific, they are offering arguments that can be examined scientifically. Introducing politics clouds these arguments, and makes one question their motives.

In the end the Solar Bus is an advocate for solar power, but we're unsure why. They have failed to explain properly why solar power is better than any other form of energy, and though their conclusion may turn out to be correct, we shouldn't look to them as a resource.

And that's the thing with the Green Movement. Especially in Vermont, it's  politically unacceptable to suggest that a "green" technology may not be what's best. I was once chastized harshly for throwing away a cheese-covered pizza box, as it was made of cardboard and could be recycled. The truth is that if it's covered with food, cardboard is prohibited from the recycling bin. Regardless of this easy-to-verify fact, I was permanently labeled as someone who didn't care about the environment.

This article will likely cause my neighbors to criticize me if they read it. "Why are you complaining about something good?" and "Don't you care about the environment?" are the imagined responses. So be it. I recognize and applaud the Solar Bus as a project, but I cannot get behind its mission because it's based on the unchallenged premise that solar power is "good," and that's not at all apparent.

I offer no apology for applying critical thinking, such that I'm able, to any subject. If solar power makes sense, I'll use it. If it doesn't, I won't. I'll decide if it makes sense or not based on the information I can gather, and sadly the information the Solar Bus provides is not enough.

 

 

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written by beowulff, March 01, 2009
So why did you only apply the baloney detector to the article about the bus?

And the low-tech magazine article doesn't actually say what you claim it does - even under their worst-case scenario (life-time of only 15 years and in low-sun regions) it's still twice as clean as gas, let alone coal. The only way they say it's worse than coal is when you install solar panels in devices with low life expectancies, like laptops. Of course, laptops can't be powered by coal, so the comparison is a bit moot. (Note that the power plants that are used to charge the laptop can be powered by coal, but that's moot too, because you could also power the grid by renewable energy).

Also, the article eventually correctly remarks that the CO2 costs of solar panels will go down as soon as more of the energy used in production of panels comes from renewable energy itself. The fact that the advantage of solar panels now is not that big is no reason not to start promoting the technology.

EDITED BY JEFF WAGG: Just to be clear, at the very top of the article, this is stated: "In some cases, producing electricity by solar panels releases more greenhouse gases than producing electricity by gas or even coal." To answer the question about why I didn't apply the baloney detection kit to the big problem of "is solar green?" it's simply a matter of scope. Something like that would take weeks of research, and should be published in a magazine rather than a blog.
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written by Chris Long, March 01, 2009
The manufacture of solar panels in energy intensive and leaves a humongo carbon footprint, not to mention o mention the toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of the silicon-based chips. It is, by all means, a "dirty" technology.

Green Weenies want perfection -- but there is no such thing in science and especially engineering ! In fact, the manufacturing process, the shipment of the panels by truck and even the storage of the panels in buildings heated/cooled by plants using fossil fuels creates a carbon footprint that takes YEARS to overcome by the use of the panels...

Funny that nuclear power, which is not on the Greenie dictionary, is what we will use to generate the bulk of our electricity in the future -- despite the non-PC nature of nuclear plants.
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written by kevinv, March 01, 2009
Why is it only the manufacture of solar panels that matters in the production of green house gasses? The real question is does the use of the panels, over their lifetime, make up for gasses created during their use. I suspect the answer to this question is significantly different the original question.

What is your definition "humongo carbon footprint"? Are you comparing it to the manufacture and operation of a coal plant? Once manufactured solar panels create little additional ghg, but a coal plant requires continual mining and delivery of coal, now without their own ghg production for the entire lifetime of the plant.

As for toxic waste, have you compared that to the coal ash of a coal plant? I think Tennessee might have some opinions on how non-toxic that is.

And you're wrong about nuclear not being on the green agenda. Many are stuck in the past on that one, but many are also finding new stances on it. Personally I agree that nuclear is going to be a cornerstone of power production going forward but the plants have to be built properly and properly regulated. The coal ash spills are a pretty good sign that the industry is incapable of regulating and overseeing itself. Oh and from the science I've seen on reprocessing of nuclear waste to run it back through the system -- looks like a bad idea.
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written by kevinv, March 01, 2009
On the original article -- i think the baloney detection kit is being misapplied. There are 2 questions:

1) Is solar power, as a whole, green?
2) Is the solar bus green?

Using the baloney detection kit on #2 will provide little info about #1. And #1 is a far more important question than #2.

The solar bus as it stands is being used as a political statement, not a scientific experiment. I think that is a poor decision by the operators. Rather than just linking to articles on the pro/cons of solar power I think it would be much better for them to outfit the bus with some additional sensors and publish their own statistics on the operation of the bus. Miles driven, power from solar, power from bio-diesel, ghg emitted by the bus, ghg emitted in manufacture of add-on components etc....

Ideally they'd have a control bus of similar manufacture running on gas to compare against.

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written by Willy K, March 01, 2009
A recycling thought experiment:

How long will it take for the the surface of the earth to be (re)cycled through the alimentary canal of humans?

Please include in the equation not only the actual foodstuffs, also include all the materials used to transport said foodstuffs to the humans and any and all materials to keep aforementioned humans alive whilst consuming. smilies/wink.gif
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written by Mully410, March 01, 2009
Great post Jeff. I like to see Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit utilized in this fashion. I think your logic in this post is well written. Too often this sacred cow of environmentalism is not challenged. We need to skeptically view all things until a preponderance of solid evidence leads us to tentatively conclude it's fact.
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Automotive physics doesn't go away just because you think "good" thoughts
written by Radwaste, March 01, 2009
First, if you will, look at this discussion. The opening post is mine.

People are interested in alcohol and biodiesel, and they're both a crock. The reasons are detailed at that link, but basically, alcohol imposes a 50% mileage penalty and won't ignite when cold, and biodiesel costs 15% of corn crops while meeting only 1% of the supply.

If you think of yourself as "skeptical", you must use the tools appropriate to evaluate energy claims. These are found in physics and chemistry texts, and have long been known by the automotive industry.

You're not getting a miracle carburetor, any more than a dowser is going to fool Mr. Randi. That's because physics behaves according to natural laws. Use 'em!
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written by Radwaste, March 01, 2009
Okay. The link omitted from the above post can be found at forums.augusta.com/viewtopic.php?t=519 . It's safe for work, and is hosted by The Augusta (Ga) Chronicle.
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Solar costs/benefits articles
written by MDeaver, March 01, 2009
MIT's Technology Review magazine is a good source of information on solar power: Costs, benefits, current research, etc. Try these links for starters:

(1) [www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=21073&ch=specialsections&sc=solar&pg=1]

Discusses an application of solar panels to a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius. "... researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, CO, have been testing one [a solar panel] on a Prius modified to plug into the electrical grid. Their conclusion: for the time being, plug-in hybrids charged from stationary solar arrays are a more efficient and cheaper option."

(2) www.technologyreview.com/special/solar

Links to several MIT Technology Review articles about solar power.

(3) At www.technologyreview.com, try searching for keywords such as [solar cost produce] to get links to more such articles.
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written by beowulff, March 01, 2009
Jeff, thanks for the reply, but quoting the first line from an article and ignoring the rest is cherry-picking. The rest of the article clearly tells us that using solar panels is between two and ten times cleaner in terms of CO2 production than using fossil fuels, depending on assumptions of solar panel lifetime and what energy mix is used to generate the energy used in solar panel production. Frankly, I've come to expect higher standards from JREF.

EDITED BY JEFF WAGG: I think you miss my point. The fact that the first line of the article doesn't match the data is EXACTLY what I'm talking about.
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written by srudloff, March 01, 2009
Apart from the environmental impact of their production, photovoltaics (i.e. producing power through solar panels) is still one of the least efficient ways to produce power. Solarthermal (ie. heating water, as described in Jeff's post) is a good idea. For means of alternatively powering a car, using an electric car powered by "conventional" power (hopefully with lots of wind, hydro and nuclear generation to keep carbon footprint small) is the best way, now and for the foreseeable future. Hybrid cars are a good way to bridge the gap from current cars to proper electric ones, but are not the final solution themselves are a mixed blessing environmentally as well.
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written by redwench, March 01, 2009
The method of power generation should be determined by the usage needs. Do we want gasoline to power our homes? Probably not. Both economically and environmentally, there are better options. A freight train is probably an exceedingly poor candidate for solar or wind power. Every method of energy generation has its pros and cons, and it is probably rather naive to think that any single one can either be completely discarded, or provide for all potential uses.
We will most likely need gasoline, or a synthetic variant, for portable energy needs for the foreseeable future. Barring some really exciting discovery, nuclear power plants will probably be required for bulk energy needs over the long term. Coal and natural gas will certainly be used for the short term, and probably the long term as well, just (hopefully) in decreasing amounts. There is no one size fits all...
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written by Radwaste, March 01, 2009
"The rest of the article clearly tells us that using solar panels is between two and ten times cleaner in terms of CO2 production than using fossil fuels, depending on assumptions of solar panel lifetime and what energy mix is used to generate the energy used in solar panel production."

And just what indicates to you that CO2 is the only factor?

ALL of the processes involved in energy production count - not just the "marquee" items.
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written by Otara, March 01, 2009
I think its important to be careful about green claims. There are many things where its quite possible that the technology isnt green overall even though it 'intuitively' seems better. Solar panels are a classic in this regard. In your link though it would seem to suggest that they _can_ be green , it just depends on the implementation. Which is true of anything really.

But we also need to remember that we hate change, and its very very easy to rationalise not having to change our behaviour. Workplace green fiends can and do make life miserable when it comes to energy saving or recycling etc, and I find myself at times really really wanting to find reasons why what they're doing isnt as sensible as they claim it is.

This isnt to say that what they're asking isnt sensible, only that my own motives are at times not purely a 'search for the truth' in this area.

Otara
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So -
written by MadScientist, March 01, 2009
What does this article contribute? Are solar panels 'green' or not? You still haven't answered the obvious question:

1. how much energy does it take to produce, say, a 200W solar panel?
2. how much energy will that panel provide over its estimated 20-25 year lifetime?

A lot of panels don't actually waste as much energy in production as you might imagine. Many panels are produced using scrap silicon from the semiconductor industry; without the solar panel industry all that stuff will simply be carted away and dumped into a hole, so in that sense solar panels make better use of existing resources. However, demand for solar panels is at the point where manufacturers are actually considering plants which are dedicated to producing silicon for solar panels.

I have environmental sensors which sit out in the middle of nowhere. Without solar panels there's no cheap or environmentally friendly way to power my instruments (except perhaps in a few places where there is enough wind to drive a small wind turbine).
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written by hamradioguy, March 01, 2009
Nice article Jeff. While I am all for solar power, when practical, on a large scale basis in this country the NIMBY effect ("Not In My Back Yard) might also be a problem: Vermont Yankee, our only in-state nuke plant, is up for license renewal in 2012. Now consider replacing it with a large scale "green" solar plant. A one square meter solar panel operating at 100% efficiency (and we're not there yet) can get a maximum of one kilowatt of energy from sunlight. I'll let someone else do the math to calculate how many acres of solar panels it would take to replace the 650 magawatts of power produced by Vermont Yankee.

Individual solar panels on everyone's house? Not a bad idea for those willing to foot the cost of the panels and batteries for nighttime and cloudy days. But watch out for neighbors who don't want to see solar panels in your yard and issues with zoning regulations. (Heck, in the sunny Denver suburbs many restrictive covenants won't allow outside clothes lines for "solar drying".)

The bottom line I think is that ALL sources of large scale energy production have their advantages and disadvantages. Critical thinking is more important now than ever as we evaluate both old and new sources of energy.

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written by BillyJoe, March 01, 2009
But watch out for neighbors who don't want to see solar panels in your yard

Aren't they on the roof?
There is a solution but it is not yet cost effective. Someone has produced a solar panel reduced to the size of a cigarette packet. It's about three times the cost though.
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bullshit meter
written by sailor, March 02, 2009
I live on a boat and use exclusively solar and a small windmill. The solar does most of the work. I have about 300 watts in panels. This runs my fridge/coomputer/lights and all the electricity I need.
Now to produce that, say, by diesel power, I would have to buy a generator (I doubt that is a very green product). Then I would have to run it for at least an hour a day. I have now done this for the last 8 years. It seems to me obviously bullshit to think that the engine would be greener. But if someone can prove to me it is, I would be interested.
Now if you look at the environmental cost of panels and make a judgment on that, you also have to look at the environmental cost of producing a power plant, and the cost of transporting the coal
As other readers have pointed out the panels actually are a plus over time (even without taking this into account). It would be a shame if this article discouraged people from putting panes on their roof and contributing to the grid.
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written by rosie, March 02, 2009
As we never tire of telling the Intelligent Designers, it is not necessary for every step of a development to produce a marked improvement. It is sufficient for there to be no evolutionary pressure against it.
Initially, it doesn't matter in the slightest that solar panels have to be transported or stored using non-green energy. That doesn't make them worse than the boiler parts for a coal-fired or nuclear power plant. Because solar energy really is free they certainly represent a potential greenness and should therefore be given a fair chance.
Almost nobody can be genuinely unbiased. That is why we take what we read with a pinch of salt. But headlines that draw loud attention to disparate drawbacks in minority applications are a good reason to reach for more salt. The question is rather, can solar panels be useful in some cases, and it is self-evident that they can. Now stop bickering and get to work on perfecting the technology.
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written by starman91, March 02, 2009
Much of what you say about the Solar Bus is true as far as their political stance, but I am going to call your (and other's) bluff on the PV technology. I am a PV scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. A lot of what you have said needs answering but we are talking about slaughtering a lot of electrons to put it on these pages.

I offer to you (and others) to come out here and tour the facilities and talk to the people studying designing and building the PV technology you are talking about. Not the manufacturers, the scientists directly responsible for a multitude of papers on the subject...from materials science to manufacturing techniques, and from concentrated solar power to photovoltacs. The field is changing and moving rapidly

Once you come out and get all the real hard facts, we welcome you to comment on this blog and elsewhere about what you have seen and learned.
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Water heating panels - another type of solar power.
written by Rustylizard, March 02, 2009
When you live as far south as we do, solar water heating panels (I’m not talking solar-cell panels) are simple and effective. I’d like to share some actual data for our home in the Florida Keys over a twenty-seven year period. Note that my calculations are based on estimates. Our 80 gallon water heater stores a lot of energy; we rarely turn it on. We get over 90% of our hot water directly from the sun all year long. Estimates for water-heating (in Florida) as a percentage of the typical, total household electric bill seem to run around 30%. If those are good approximations, we have saved about 157,000 kWh over the years, and reduced our total electric bill by over $12,000. Consider the following:

Economics: I did not use the cost for our own system as a basis for calculation since I built and installed our panels myself. Instead, I did a discounted cash flow analysis, using our year to year savings, and I plugged in a couple of sample costs to present a rough idea of what a typical return on investment might be: If the cost for the total system had been $3,342, the over-all return would have been 10%. If the cost had been $5,870, the return would have been 5%. Our actual return was much higher because we had no labor costs to consider. Tax incentives can make the solar proposition even sweeter.

Resource Preservation (in terms of oil): Using information from the internet, a barrel of oil yields 1,700 kWh, and assuming a 50% electric generation and delivery efficiency, we saved roughly 185 barrels or 7,770 gallons of oil. Of course, we did not really save that much in actual oil. South Florida gets a lot of its electricity from nuclear and other sources. Also, conservation helps to keep energy prices low, so many folks just waste more energy and partially offset any savings.

CO2 emissions: If the information I have is correct, burning 3.15 barrels of oil releases one metric ton of CO2. Therefore, 185 barrels/3.15 = 58.7 fewer metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere if the source of the power is oil.

I doubt that the wood, glass, and copper sheet and tubing that make up our solar array take more than a few barrels of oil to produce. The system has required little maintenance, and I expect it will continue working for us for many additional decades. No batteries or hookup to the power grid are required, just a tiny pump and sensor. In some locations, perhaps the first few panels to consider installing on a residential roof should be water heating panels instead of solar cell panels.
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written by Cuddy Joe, March 02, 2009
Canada is screwed.
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written by kodabar, March 03, 2009
Goodness me, it's another of these articles. Ooh, the solar bus may or may not be as environmentally friendly as they claim. Ah, their website doesn't go into a huge amount of detail. Ooh look, I can mock the independent study they cite as one of the authors works for Siemens so is an obvious shill for the evil solar energy barons. Look, I'm applying sceptical thinking.

Do you actually believe that this bus is doing more harm to the environment than the more usual variety? These people are just making an effort to do something. Sure, they evengalise more than perhaps is strictly appropriate, but their hearts are in the right place and there's a wealth of evidence to show that they're sort of right.

Let's apply the Sagan Baloney test to Jeff's post:

"Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts"
Well, Jeff links to an article from Mac Life and one from Low Tech Magazine. The Low Tech article doesn't cite any sources and there are major corrections in the text because of comments received. The Mac Life article is similarly devoid of scientific content, even going so far as to repeat the falacy that the world is running out of indium. Fail.

"Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view."
Obviously, this story is about proponents of solar panel technology, so there is an alternate view presented, but Jeff spends time rubbishing them, so they can't be considered a "knowledgeable proponent". Jeff doesn't present an arguement of higher calibre nor includes proponents of one. Fail.

"Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities")."
Jeff's no authority, but he is posting under the title of the JREF who are some kind of authority on sceptical thinking at least. But Jeff doesn't claim to be an expert. Partial credit.

"Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy."
Jeff mentions that there might be something in solar power, but doesn't really go into it. Fail.

"Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours."
Hmm. This one kind of answers itself. Fail.

Now, obviously I'm poking fun here. But I am worried by the preponderance of articles like these since the changes to the website. It's attacking a website for no good reason with no good evidence. Perhaps a more general article on solar power citing some decent sources for both sides of the arguement and perhaps even including a section on the Solar Bus would have been interesting. But this just seems like bear baiting.

Sure, solar power isn't a completely green and harmless technology and proponents often forget the environmental impact of the manufacture of the panels, but it's hardly on the scale of oil or coal. Solar panel technology is still evolving and recent advances have led to the production of solar cells by nanotechnology based ink (as pointed out by one of the commenters in the Low Tech article) which removes the need for a lot of the toxic chemicals used in solar cell manufacture.

Please feel free to tell me I'm wrong or vote me down, but wouldn't we all like to see a more detailed article on solar power and have a proper debate about that?
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written by Cuddy Joe, March 03, 2009
"Please feel free to tell me I'm wrong or vote me down, but wouldn't we all like to see a more detailed article on solar power and have a proper debate about that?"

No, we all wouldn't. I think detailed, lengthy articles are to be desired, of course, as well as proper debate. However, this is SWIFT, on online blog, not a scientific journal or magazine where detailed, fully articulated pieces are the norm. Further, this is a fast-paced blog in terms of entries coming daily and articles quickly drop off the main page. Comments tend to dwindle precipitously once an article goes off the main page, making full debates difficult in this format. As we all know, some debates on regular message boards may go on for months, years even, while still maintaining viability (as opposed to endless 'screw you/no, screw you' threads).

While I am always interested in detailed, well-supported, comprehensive articles and in debates concerning their content, I don't think that's the mission of SWIFT. This is a 'quick-hitter' format, always has been. Personally, I like the quick hitter formula as part of my morning coffee & internet news & info ritual. If I want fully comprehensive scientific articles, I know where to find them. As for fuller, proper debates, they may be found in plenitude on the JREF message board.

As for Jeff Wagg and Allison (Smith, is it?), we may all agree neither is James Randi, but no reasonable person expects an apology for their's or anyone's failure to measure up to that standard - Randi's an icon in our circles. However, I do detect in Jeff Wagg a sort of gonzo skepticism that is very much in line with Randi's record as a skeptic, done in his own style and without merely aping Randi. I think this is the most promising aspect of the 'new' SWIFT. As for Ms. Smith, well.. I hold no personal animosity, but I'd never heard of her prior to her SWIFT entries and I usually hold little value for her efforts. The Woo In Review thing is... I dunno what that's supposed to be and was really confused by the fanzine flavor of the Lost entry. The current childish sturm and drang over her 'Mr. X' ghost show entry is really, really bush league, far from being in keeping with what I've come to expect when I click on SWIFT.

Speaking only for myself, I see SWIFT as a motorcycle, as compared to the semi-trucks of fully comprehensive scientific articles.
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written by BillyJoe, March 04, 2009
I see SWIFT as a motorcycle

Well, sometimes someone sends your motorcycle spinning into the gutter and you've just got to get up and slap them around a bit before riding on. smilies/grin.gif

BJ
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written by patrick767, March 11, 2009
I'm still wondering what happened to solar panels on home roofs. My parents' house is 29 years old and the front garage roof is completely covered with solar panels. They continue to be happy with this purchase made when they built the home. It was pricey up front, but over the years has far more than made up for these costs with the heating cost savings during Indiana winters. The biggest problem with them now is that the manufacturer is long since out of business and if anything goes wrong with the simple computer that controls the system, it will be difficult to find the parts and the know how to fix it. The system does require space for a rock bin. In their case it's in the basement. If the home didn't have a basement, I don't know, but I suspect putting just the rock bin below ground would be doable.
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written by BillyJoe, March 11, 2009
They're friggin ugly.
Unless they make those cigarette sized panels as cheap as the larger versions, forget it.
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