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Solar Paneled Roadways Vindicated

Posted by Infra on Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Written by James Hinton

Last year I wrote a piece discussing the possible use of solar panels as road surfaces. In it I discussed a project by engineer Scott Brusaw intended to take our decaying roadways, contributors to climate change, and repurpose them to become part of the solution. Solar power generating roadways, he argued, could virtually eliminate dependence on carbon emitting fossil fuels for decades to come.

The article generated a good bit of discussion as both supporters of the concept and detractors weighed in on a healthy debate over the project. Supporters backed the confidence of Norwich Civil Engineering professor Edwin Schmeckpeper. Opponents, however, remained unconvinced. Ultimately, the disagreement between the two sides came down to one simple problem, a lack of hard data to support or rebuff the concept.

We now have numbers, though they did not come from Solar Roadways. Instead, they come from a project in Europe. A consortium of companies working together constructed the SolaRoad along a bike path in the Netherlands’ village of Krommenie. The solar panel portion, covering half the width of the path, stretches for 70 meters (230 feet) and is 1.25 meters wide (4 feet). The other half lacks panels and is being used as a “control” surface to compare wear and tear of conventional road surfaces. It was “turned on” and opened to the public on November 12th.

The initial predictions were that a 100 meter long bike path could power 2 houses over the course of a year. According to a May 7 press release covering a review of the first six months of data, the path had already generated 3,000 kWh, enough to power one home for a full year while being only 70% as long as the initial plan.  This represents a performance 43% better than expectations.

It was not all good news, however. The first six months revealed there was still work to do to make the project viable. Subjected only to foot and bicycle traffic and the relatively kind weather of the Low Countries, sections of the path suffered from delamination separating the panels from their protective coating.

Further, SolaRoad admits that the current cost is not yet within a practical range, though it has been cautious about stating actual costs. So far SolaRoad has invested €3.5 million ($4 million U.S.) on the project, but this cost includes the entire budget, including 5 years developing a panel design in the first place. The bike path in the Netherlands “represents just a small part of this”.

SolaRoad expects that both of these problems will be overcome soon. Krommenie is specifically being used as a three year long test, during which improvements will be made as solutions to problems are developed. The goal is to achieve panels that will achieve a zero-sum cost at 15 years of use (with an expected lifespan of 20+ years). SolaRoad is already testing possible solutions to the delamination issue while exploring how improved manufacturing and mass production methods can drastically reduce costs.

In this, solar power generating roadways are following an already well demonstrated path. When solar power first went commercial it was still prohibitively expensive for all but the most idealistic of well off home owners. The average solar panel in 1980 cost $21 per watt. Today, even with 25 years of inflation, improved design and increased mass production has dropped that price to $1 per watt.

Now that we have some numbers, however, we now need to translate what they mean in practical terms. SolaRoad’s numbers were based around a single person home in the Netherlands, using 3,000 kWh of power annually. What would this look like in the U.S.?

The per capita use of electricity in the U.S. comes out to just shy of 12,000 kWh per person. By comparison, in the Netherlands it’s a little over half of that, at 6,750 kWh. If we assume that SolaRoad’s road remains static in terms of their output (instead of improving as happened with solar panels from 1980 to today), it will require roughly 560 square feet of paneling per American to meet our electricity needs.

The average residential roadway in the U.S. has lanes 9-12 feet wide. Even assuming a very narrow, tight 9 foot “average” residential lane, only 58 feet of lane is needed to equal that “average American.” Add in sidewalks and bike paths (a-la SolaRoad) as well as gutters for drainage, and it drops to about 40 feet. These numbers grow even smaller when you start extending this project to non-residential roads, such as three lane highways and four-plus lane interstates.

These numbers can drop even further when combined with other green energy initiatives gaining steam in the U.S. The typical incandescent light bulb has a life span of 1,200 hours and uses 60 W of electricity. Fortunately, it only costs a buck. An LED replacement bulb is going to cost $79.96 to purchase, will last 30,000 hours (three and a half years of constant use!), and only use 13 W of electricity. When you take into account replacement costs for incandescent bulbs, the LED is three times the price, but that one bulb is going to save you 1,400 kW of electricity. At the average cost of electricity in New England, that’s a savings of $292.15 over the lifetime of that LED for a net profit of $242.15.

That is the savings from a single light bulb. When you look at the total savings of new, energy efficient homes over older pre-green movement homes, the average home uses 3,500 kWh less every year. Application of the same building and maintenance practices across business and industry means that, ultimately, the typical American could come down to needing a mere 9,000 kWh/year. Now we’re looking at 30 feet (360 square feet) of typical residential lane with bike lane and/or sidewalk per American to provide 100% of our energy needs.

Going back to Scott Brusaw’s numbers while pitching Solar Roadways, and assuming that Scott’s far, FAR more rugged panels generate similar power production, we have around 31,250 square miles of paved surfaces such as roads, bike paths, parking lots, etc. At 360 square feet per average American, that much road converted into solar roads can support 2.4 billion people, eight times our current population. Add in green construction and LED bulbs, we can up that to over 3 billion.

But Scott’s solar panels are far more rugged, designed for 100,000 pound traffic doing 70 MPH, and with many additional capabilities built in, such as melting off snow and instantly “painting” themselves with warnings and changing traffic patterns. So let’s “handicap” him a full 50% to account for a possible reduction of sunlight reaching the panels through the glass plus the power needs of melting ice and illuminating lanes. Let’s also assume Americans refuse to buy smart houses and bulbs.

We’re still, at worst, supporting four times our current population using existing surfaces on green energy produced using nothing but our roads and parking lots. The technology to do this is real, it is in place, and 120,000 bicycles have ridden over it in the past six months.

All we need to do now is have the patience to wait just a few more years for the technology to move from “real” to “realistic”, and “Solar Freakin Roadways” can come to a neighborhood near you.

James Hinton is a lifelong learner and army veteran. The son of an engineer, he keeps a close eye on the solutions engineering is developing for future growth.uf

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24 Responses to “Solar Paneled Roadways Vindicated”

  1. Paylayale says:

    //Just as I thought, P., the video you finally got around to linking doesn’t show what you want us to think it shows. You implied if not outright stated that the panels themselves were so tender and delicate they were flexing under Scott’s weight.//

    Nope. I didn’t say anything about flexing. I didn’t even use the word flex. Here’s what I said, “I’ve seen them rock back and forth under Scott Brusaw’s weight. Differential loading destroys things.”

    A common example of differential loading destroying things is floor tile. Floor tile is inflexible and if there’s differential loading, it cracks under foot traffic.

    //What the video actually shows are panels ever-so-slightly moving while mounted in the test bed, which is designed for the ready removal of test panels so, y’know, they can be tested. //

    It’s hard to make concrete perfectly flat. It also expands and contracts a lot with temperature. That’s why bolting an inflexible tile is really silly-it can be over torqued or undertorqued depending on temperature. These tiles are loose for just this reason.

    //(You know, the test bed with panels that’s withstood two Idaho winters?)//

    It’d be impressive if they actually used the panels in a real road for two Idaho winters. But it’s not because it just sits there.

    //in other words, it’s not the panels themselves, but the mounting (a mounting not intended to be permanent), that has you all aquiver.//

    That’s an intricate part of the pitch, that you could just bolt in a new tile if it failed. It’s not meant to be permanently installed at all.

    //Mo Rocca jumped up and down on a Solar Road panel and it didn’t flex a millimeter//

    I don’t believe that this statement is supported by the video’s resolution or camera angle.

    //So P., you’re saying that the DoT wasted a ton of money on the first SR prototype?//

    Yes, absolutely. But in the whole scheme of things, $750,000 isn’t all that much money.

    //And that NASA will be wasting its money when it gets an SR installation either this year or next?//

    Pure speculation. There’s simply a letter of interest. A letter of interest is not a contract or a bid. In fact as of right now, there’s no pricing, bid, proposal or contract either with NASA, AMTRAK, or the City of Sandpoint for *ANY* installation.

    //As for the idea that heated panels would use more energy than they generate: You’re assuming that they’d be heated all the time – they obviously wouldn’t need to be heated when it wasn’t snowing or sleeting.//

    I assumed no such thing. The calculation was for a *LOAD* during a snow storm. It was not a measurement of energy used. It was measured in gigawatts, not gigawatt hours. In order for the city of Buffalo to do what you’re proposing, they’d need 67 of the largest gas turbine power plants in the world, on standby, waiting to be started up. That’s the equivalent of 23 average sized nuclear reactors!!!! It’s a stupid asinine amount of energy. Do you realize how silly you sound???

    //I’ll have to bookmark this thread and make a note to myself to come back here in six months when the Amtrak installation is done. I’m sure you’ll be around//

    Yes, I will. Amtrak will not be done because there isn’t even a contract. In fact, SFR has gone back to the drawing board to do a *THIRD* prototype. Not gonna happen in 6 months.

  2. Paylayale says:

    //Just as I thought, P., the video you finally got around to linking doesn’t show what you want us to think it shows. You implied if not outright stated that the panels themselves were so tender and delicate they were flexing under Scott’s weight.//

    Nope. I didn’t say anything about flexing. I didn’t even use the word flexing. Here’s what I said, “I’ve seen them rock back and forth under Scott Brusaw’s weight. Differential loading destroys things.”

    A common example of differential loading destroying things is floor tile. Floor tile is inflexible and if there’s differential loading, it cracks under foot traffic.

    //What the video actually shows are panels ever-so-slightly moving while mounted in the test bed, which is designed for the ready removal of test panels so, y’know, they can be tested. //

    It’s hard to make concrete perfectly flat. It also expands and contracts a lot with temperature. That’s why bolting an inflexible tile is really silly-it can be over torqued or undertorqued depending on temperature. These tiles are loose for just this reason.

    //(You know, the test bed with panels that’s withstood two Idaho winters?)//

    It’d be impressive if they actually tested the panels in a real road for two Idaho winters. But it’s not because it just sits there.

    //in other words, it’s not the panels themselves, but the mounting (a mounting not intended to be permanent), that has you all aquiver.//

    That’s an intricate part of the pitch, that you could just bolt in a new tile if it failed. It’s not meant to be permanently installed at all.

    //Mo Rocca jumped up and down on a Solar Road panel and it didn’t flex a millimeter//

    I don’t believe that this statement is supported by the video’s resolution or camera angle.

    //So P., you’re saying that the DoT wasted a ton of money on the first SR prototype?//

    Yes, absolutely. But in the whole scheme of things, $750,000 isn’t all that much money.

    //And that NASA will be wasting its money when it gets an SR installation either this year or next?//

    Pure speculation. There’s simply a letter of interest. A letter of interest is not a contract or a bid. In fact as of right now, there’s no pricing, bid, proposal or contract either with NASA, AMTRAK, or the City of Sandpoint for *ANY* installation.

    //As for the idea that heated panels would use more energy than they generate: You’re assuming that they’d be heated all the time – they obviously wouldn’t need to be heated when it wasn’t snowing or sleeting.//

    I assumed no such thing. The calculation was for a *LOAD* during a snow storm. It was not a measurement of energy used. It was measured in gigawatts, not gigawatt hours. In order for the city of Buffalo to do what you’re proposing, they’d need 67 of the largest gas turbine power plants in the world, on standby, waiting to be started up. That’s the equivalent of 23 average sized nuclear reactors!!!! It’s a stupid asinine amount of energy. Do you realize how silly you sound???

    //I’ll have to bookmark this thread and make a note to myself to come back here in six months when the Amtrak installation is done. I’m sure you’ll be around//

    Yes, I will. Amtrak will not be done because there isn’t even a contract. In fact, SFR has gone back to the drawing board to do a *THIRD* prototype. Not gonna happen in 6 months.

  3. Ryan B. says:

    ——–
    “Which is from a *CHRONIC* lack of infrastructure spending over the past 30 years in the US. We only spend about 2% of our GDP on infrastructure, while Europe spends about 5% and China spends 9%. Of that 2%, only about half goes towards road maintenance.”
    ——–

    Sure, we’re saying the same thing. We don’t spend enough money to maintain our roads. There are two ways to fix that: spend more money (which is hard to come by given our government already spends a ludicrous amount more than it earns), or figure out how to do more with the money we spend. I think #2 is worth putting serious time and investment into.

    ——–
    “//Who is going to pay for your rooftop to get solar panels? Where is the money for your desert panel farms coming from?//

    The Japanese, Chinese, and Germans who buy our bonds.”
    ——–

    The correct answer is “right from your pocket.” Taxes, taxes, taxes.

    ——–
    “There’s no evidence that they’re cost effective. There’s no evidence that they’ll be low maintenance, and there’s no evidence that any revenue they’d generate would justify the cost of the capital.”
    ——–

    I could say the same of the counterargument. There is no evidence that it can’t work.

    So the technology is unproven. How does one prove a technology? How does one gather evidence? Shoot, how does one invent anything? You have to believe your crazy idea will work, and then try it and see if it does. Scott Brusaw has 20 years of experience as an electrical engineer, he’s been working on this for 7 years, and he still thinks it will work. He has built prototypes that validate his vision and is preparing to ramp up to scale. He has raised over 2 million dollars and is looking to hire some very smart people.

    You’re entitled to your doubts, but between you and Scott, I’d bet my money on Scott. And when the real-deal full-scale installations come online, feel free to point and laugh if it doesn’t work out. I’d but money that it does.

    ——–
    “Heated driveways and sidewalks are NOT a new technology. They’ve been around for DECADES.”
    ——–

    So have solar panels. Haven’t really caught on yet, though, have they? The world still gets significantly less than 1% of its energy from them.

    ——–
    “Because this is NOT a new technology, some smart phones have studied the issue and done the math on how much energy is required to melt snow/ice on driveways and sidewalks. The minimum is 89 BTU/sqft for residential applications in a place like Reno or Salt Lake. For commercial and high safety areas in Buffalo, NY it’s 330 BTU/sqft. Even 89BTU/sqft is a monstrous amount of energy.”

    “Buffalo, NY has 2,157 miles of paved road. Assuming 24ft wide roads, you get 273,335,040 sqft of road surface. Multiplied by 330BTU, you get 90,200,564,200 BTU of capacity required. Converted to watts, that’s 26,435,175,865 watts. Electricity is commonly measured in kilowatts or megawatts, so it’d be 26 GW of electricity. Do you have any freaking idea how much energy that is??? The largest nuclear power plant in the world is 8.2 GW! The largest hydroelectric dam-Three Gorges has a peak capacity of 18.4GW!!!! The largest fossil fuel power plant is only 5.6GW (Saudi Arabia). The power plants to melt your snow would be stupid expensive because there would be no use for them during the shoulder seasons and summer. Therefore the capital cost will be even more expensive because it’ll be sitting idle for 8 months out of the year.”
    ——–

    You may be right. I’ll wait and see on this one.

    ——–
    LED traffic lights are shaded from the sun and AIMED at the eyes of the drivers. The LEDs in Stupid Freaking Roadways cannot be shaded and they’re aimed at the sky. No recessed light source, LED or not, can be seen from shallow angles.
    ——–

    LEDs aren’t “aimed”. They emit light in all directions simultaneously. The ones in the panels aren’t recessed, either, they’re embedded in refractive glass that scatters their light. That’s what the raised nubs in the panels are for: they focus sunlight onto the solar cells, and disperse the light of the LEDs.

    ——–
    “Inductive charging is quite inefficient, which is why it is almost never done. No one’s ever done inductive charging while moving because of how impractical it is.”
    ——–

    A quick Google search shows lots of promising work in this area. Maybe it hasn’t been practical yet, but technology marches on.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=inductive+charging+while+moving&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

    ——–
    “Electricity and telecom cables are buried where it makes sense to. The reason why some are not is because of cost. Furthermore, utilities and telcos are not going to rip up their entire infrastructure that has trillions in investment just to put them inside of these cable corridors.”
    ——–

    I half agree with you, because utilities and telcos have a long history of sucking. The cable corridor is an idea that could certainly work, if enough people want it to. Similar to the solar roadways themselves. But the jury is admittedly out on if it will be implemented. It’s a fringe benefit anyway.

    ——–
    “The stormwater treatment they speak of is just a French Drain. French Drains are subject to being clogged with debris and can require a lot of maintenance. They’re also illegal in most applications, especially when the wastewater might contain chemicals because those would end up in the groundwater.”
    ——–

    Source? I’ve read a ton about this project, and have never heard specifically what technique they are thinking of when they talk about stormwater treatment.

    ——–
    “//Or the precise vehicle position reporting made possible because every panel knows its location.//
    Ever hear of GPS?”
    ——–

    Ever notice how much GPS sucks? It’s a 90’s-era technology with a lot of limitations and flaws. Vehicle GPS systems need all sorts of predictive algorithms, because GPS doesn’t quite keep up, along with some clever statistics to normalize noise in reported location. Not to mention the accuracy of civilian applications is intentionally limited to keep it from being used against us by other countries’ militaries. The result of this is that your reported position lags behind your actual position, often by many seconds.

    Solar roadways would have always present, always accurate location.

    ——–
    //Notice I haven’t even mentioned the generation of electricity, the panels’ primary purpose, and look at all these side benefits!//
    There are no side benefits, the snow melting is completely impractical, the stormwater idea and LEDs are DOA, and the cable corridors won’t be used.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvCIhn7_FXI&feature=youtu.be&t=2m44s
    Go watch this presentation, starting at 2:44. Elon Musk is talking about the surface area of solar panels that would be required to produce enough electricity to power the United States. He then shows a map of the US with a blue box over the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles to demonstrate that the necessary area is actually relatively small. His point was that ideas oriented around finding innovative new places to put solar capacity are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Again, Stupid Freaking Roadways is TRYING TO SOLVE PROBLEMS THAT DON’T EXIST.
    The amount of solar we need to install is not so massive that there’s an issue with finding places to put it. All other noise aside, that one simple fact pretty much lays waste to the entire concept of solar roadways.”
    ——–

    Trying to match our current production is thinking too small. Our appetite for energy is boundless. And again, it’s not that there are no places to put solar panels besides roads, it’s that roads are a nice place for them. Why use other land when all that surface area is already there, doing only one thing? And AGAIN, they are trying to solve the very real and extant problem of the gap between our road maintenance needs and our road maintenance budget, in a way that provides dozens of other benefits.

    Why are you fighting this dream so hard? Either it can’t work, as you say, and will never spread beyond a few proofs of concept. Or it can work, and it will __massively change society for the better__. You don’t need to help it fail. If it’s really as impractical as you say, it will do that all on its own. But listen, it’s still too early to pass judgement, especially in such emphatic and condescending tones. Don’t be that guy. I want my solar freakin’ roadways.

  4. Paylayale says:

    //Sure, we’re saying the same thing. We don’t spend enough money to maintain our roads. There are two ways to fix that: spend more money (which is hard to come by given our government already spends a ludicrous amount more than it earns), or figure out how to do more with the money we spend. I think #2 is worth putting serious time and investment into.//

    You might have a point *ASSUMING* that a solar road was in any way competitive on performance *AND* cost. But you have ZERO evidence of either.

    //The correct answer is “right from your pocket.” Taxes, taxes, taxes.//

    Nope. We’re already taxing a very high % of GDP from a historical perspective. Even this is insufficient and we have to borrow from Japan, China, and Germany. But the bulk of the problem lies with the Sick Care racket and the fact that we spend about double the % of GDP as everyone else. Taking the sick care racket out back to the woodshed and halving the money spent on sick care would instantly balance the Federal budget and give nearly all the states and municipalities a surplus.

    //I could say the same of the counterargument. There is no evidence that it can’t work.//

    Burden of proof logical fallacy. It’s impossible to prove a negative. The burden of proof lies with him who makes the claim.

    //So the technology is unproven. How does one prove a technology? How does one gather evidence?//

    If you have an idea for a solar road, the very first thing you do is test the glass. Put the glass in a part of a road somewhere and see how it holds up. Then you make a longer stretch of glass road and see how it holds up and performs. You see, if you can’t get the glass to work, then the idea won’t work. After 7 years, they haven’t even done these first two steps.

    //Scott Brusaw has 20 years of experience as an electrical engineer, he’s been working on this for 7 years, and he still thinks it will work.//

    Yes, he’s a great charlatan and very skilled at separating the scientifically illiterate with their money.

    //He has built prototypes that validate his vision and is preparing to ramp up to scale. He has raised over 2 million dollars and is looking to hire some very smart people.//

    In April of 2014, SFR said that their product works and that they needed money to start manufacturing these panels in every country in the world. As of June 2015, they still haven’t hired any engineers. They also promised power output and cost data in July 2014, but still haven’t released it. Instead, they’ve gone back to the drawing board to make another prototype.

    //You’re entitled to your doubts, but between you and Scott, I’d bet my money on Scott. And when the real-deal full-scale installations come online, feel free to point and laugh if it doesn’t work out. I’d but money that it does.//

    You’re making all sorts of assumptions here like that it’d be competitive on a cost and performance basis.

    // So have solar panels. Haven’t really caught on yet, though, have they? The world still gets significantly less than 1% of its energy from them.//

    IIRC, it’s now 5%. Solar panels aren’t widely used because they were prohibitively expensive. There’s also a lot of drawbacks like the fact that they don’t produce energy at night and produce very little energy in bad weather and during the winter. The costs have come down and now they make a lot of sense in the Southwest, especially given the subsidies that are available.

    //LEDS aren’t “aimed”. They emit light in all directions simultaneously.//

    You’ve obviously never read a LED data sheet. Working in electronics myself, I read them all the time. LEDS emit light in a 120 degree cone of light with the bulk of the light (~95%) being emitted in a 90 degree cone of light. They do NOT emit light in all directions like an incandescent or fluorescent light.

    //The ones in the panels aren’t recessed, either, they’re embedded in refractive glass that scatters their light. That’s what the raised nubs in the panels are for: they focus sunlight onto the solar cells, and disperse the light of the LEDs.//

    Glass isn’t magical and neither are lenses. What your basically claiming is a free lunch. I asked Scott for a picture of the LEDs working during the day, since all their videos and pictures show them at night. I was banned on their FB page for asking the question.

    //I half agree with you, because utilities and telcos have a long history of sucking. The cable corridor is an idea that could certainly work, if enough people want it to. Similar to the solar roadways themselves. But the jury is admittedly out on if it will be implemented. It’s a fringe benefit anyway.//

    They’re monopolies and pretty much suck by definition. The cable corridor won’t work because in the sense that they won’t be economically feasible. Furthermore, electricity and stormwater shouldn’t exist in the same place.

    //Source? I’ve read a ton about this project, and have never heard specifically what technique they are thinking of when they talk about stormwater treatment.//

    Go look at their patent-8,907,202. “the storm water control system having a French drain adjacent a side of the interconnected solar panels and the French drain communicates with plumbing connections to storage tanks and pumps and valves for moving the water for use. “

    //Ever notice how much GPS sucks? //

    No, I haven’t noticed that it sucks at all. It’s accurate to within about 3.5 meters. The accuracy for military users is the same, but the military is able to employ ionospheric correction. There’s GPS upgrades in the works that will provide ionospheric correction for civilian use as well.

    //Solar roadways would have always present, always accurate location.//

    Ok, who cares?? We could do the same thing with existing roads, but there’s no need to.

    //Trying to match our current production is thinking too small. Our appetite for energy is boundless. And again, it’s not that there are no places to put solar panels besides roads, it’s that roads are a nice place for them.//

    I agree that the demand for energy is boundless. But the roads are the worst place you can put a solar panel while maximizing cost. Why would you want to maximize cost and minimize performance???

    // Why use other land when all that surface area is already there, doing only one thing?//

    Could say the same for rooftops…all that surface area already there, doing only one thing. And no, we’re not running out of rooftops, nor are we running out of badlands in NM, UT, AZ, CO, WY, NV, ID, MT, WA, CA, OR, and WA. You’ve obviously never been in an airplane over the western US.

    //And AGAIN, they are trying to solve the very real and extant problem of the gap between our road maintenance needs and our road maintenance budget, in a way that provides dozens of other benefits.//

    Again, you’re making the assumption that solar roads would provide other valuable benefits in addition to being competitive on cost and performing as well as asphalt. In 7 years, the Brusaws have produced zero evidence of anything.

    //Why are you fighting this dream so hard? Either it can’t work, as you say, and will never spread beyond a few proofs of concept.//

    Why are you fighting on behalf of these charlatans so hard? No, I don’t think it will spread much beyond a few prototypes. Maybe some Hollywood idiots will pay for a few solar driveways, which will be insanely expensive and not hold up.

    If you’re for Solar Energy as well as advancing science and technology in general, you get offended by these charlatans. They take away from the credibility of solar power as well as science in general. It also takes away funding and interest from more noble endeavors.

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