Solarman: Superman’s older brother

05 May 2015 by William P. Hirshman

PV and ME Question #5: Why aren’t solar and other renewables the best of friends

Not many know that Superman had an older brother. His name was Bernie, and he arrived on Earth a year-and-a-half before his youngersibling.

Unfortunately for Bernie, because his home planet of Krypton had a red sun that was not as hot as the Earth’s yellow Sun, he assumed since he was sweating buckets on the green planet that the thermal solar rays are what power was all about. That’s why Bernie took on the title of Solarman – short for SolarThermalMan – as his superhero name and claim to fame.

He was soon to feel less like a Superhero and more like a Superzero, not because he was wrong about the power of solar thermal, but due to the power of promotion.

A new force arrives

When his kid brother arrived in the galactic neighborhood of Earth, Bernie realized that any claim to fame had dissipated. He had to watch helplessly as his little brother assumed the mantle of Superman — short for SuperPVman. Even though Bernie’s thermal technology was older than his brother’s PV prowess, Superman – not Solarman – was the superstar.

Even his self-promotion was super. Superman had his alter ego Clark Kent get himself a job at the Daily PV Planet. Typing behind the cloak of a mild-mannered reporter, the Man of Silicon was able to belt out stories with banner headlines that read: “Superman Saves Earth with PV”; “Superman’s PV Vision Destroys Errant Nuclear Missile”; “Superman Uses PV to Help Old Lady Cross Street”.

For Bernie, however, there was no high-paid, high-profile career at the Daily PV Planet. Instead, he had to settle for a less prestigious job, writing about solar thermal for the Renewable Energy Planet news site. Try as he might, his pieces on concentrated solar power were always getting buried to the website equivalent of a newspaper’s back page as his articles were left in the shade by concentrated photovoltaic power.

Brothers at solar odds

It didn’t stop there. Superman, after a productive midday of making PV-generated kilowatt-hours, would razz his older brother: “Hey, hot stuff. Warm me up of a cup of coffee.”

And to make matters worse, Superman in his arrogance appropriated the word “solar” so that he, as the champion of photovoltaics, could use both “PV” and “solar” interchangeably for referring to the making of electricity.

Bernie Solarman even had to watch as his brother crowded out the other forms of renewable energy at his very own Renewable Energy Planet — day after day, the PV-centric Superman would arrogantly bully the other sections, covering biomass, geothermal and hydropower, out of theRenewable Energy Planet homepage limelight, as if they hardly existed.

But wind power did. And it haunted Superman – it was the Kryptonite of renewables, sapping him of his PV strength. Not only did he have a potential challenger in wind, but arguably a superior. In TV news reports on renewables, it was invariably sexier for the reporters to show dynamic propeller-ing wind turbines on TV screens over boring and static solar PV panels.

Divide and conquer

So often it is gusts of the wind against the glow of the Sun. It is solar PV against solar thermal. It is renewable against renewable — when it should be renewables against “refusables,” those dirty and dangerous energy sources of the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies that lovers of the Earth know they should refuse but are addicted to. And that suits the traditional powers-that-be just fine.

This infighting is mirrored in a comment to PV and ME’s question of why solar and other renewables weren’t the best of friends. “Because solar has had an easy life,” says the respondent, who requested his name not be used, “and only works the day shift, while other renewables work hard on all shifts whenever they can.” It is the kind of sentiment that has played into the hands of the enemy. Divided by envy, they know, renewables are as good as conquered, as they are left to fight one another over the limited financial support from governments.

A renewable restart?

But renewable relations may have recently made a slight recovery. In March 2015, wind and solar teamed up — at least in the US — when the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) put out their first joint handbook,  a 184-page document on “incorporating” renewable energy into statewide plans.

It’s a start — or at least a restart — a renewing of the ideals all renewables have always had at heart.

But for the moment, that brotherly love among renewables – at a time when even the brothers SolarThermalMan and SuperPVman find themselves estranged – desperately needs renewing of its own.