Solar or oil: is that a legitimate question?

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Last week, a story titled Texas Oil Baron Is Promoting Solar Energy ran in the New York Times. Written by freelance environmental journalist Todd Woody, it was about a commercial featuring Larry Hagman, posing as the Texas oil tycoon J.R. Ewing that he played on the TV show Dallas. In the commercial, the former faux-oilman is now promoting solar energy for the German photovoltaic module maker, SolarWorld.

It’s just the kind of man-bites-dog story that the press loves. A former fossil energy executive joins the renewable revolution. Just ask T. Boone Pickens. The fact that this executive was a fictional TV character only gives the story additional appeal.

If you’re going to contrast your company with oil, there’s probably never been a better time. But there isn’t ever really a bad time. As Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, said in the Wall Street Journal Monday, “There is not, never has been and never will be any downside in attacking an oil company.”

Is solar an alternative to oil?

In the commercial, Hagman says “I’m still in the energy business. There’s always a better alternative.” But is it legitimate for solar to advertise itself as an alternative to oil? Forbes energy journalist Jonathan Fahey isn’t buying it. On the blog Energy Source, Fahey writes: Why Is This So Hard? Solar Power Doesn’t Replace Oil. Here’s an excerpt:

if all our roofs were suddenly covered with solar panels and the entire expanse of the Great Plains was peppered with wind turbines, we’d use just as much oil as ever. Oil powers our cars, trucks, planes and trains. Solar panels produce electricity, which we otherwise get from coal, natural gas, uranium, and water, through big hydroelectric dams in the west. OK, there are a few spots (like Florida and New England) where oil is used to produce a little electricity. And OK, the first few electric vehicles from the likes of Tesla and Nissan are on the roads. But we are a precious long way from using solar and wind power to replace oil in any noticeable way.

Later in the post, Fahey writes:

It’s probably impossible for any green energy company to resist trying to exploit the hideous disaster in the gulf, even if what it does has little relation to oil…But this kind of thing has too many people expecting solar panels and wind turbines to prevent oil spills and excessive purchases of foreign oil.

What do you think? Should solar companies advertise their energy as an alternative to oil or stick to coal? Does it confuse? Does it matter?

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