mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Building Up Solar With an Allen Wrench


On Monday the Swedish home-furnishing retailer IKEA announced that it would be offering cheap residential solar panels in their UK stores on a trial basis. The retailer will be partnering with the Hong Kong based Hanergy Solar Group Ltd., which will handle the installation and maintenance of the panels. The panels will be offered for the equivalent of $9,200, though IKEA claims that the costs will be made up within seven years.

Environmentalists are hailing this news as a triumph. The green blog Treehugger gloats “[y]ou know solar is becoming mainstream when solar panels are sold between flat-pack nightstands and rolls of multi-colored carpet.” Grist confidently predicts that even though “Britain’s not exactly known as a sunny place…solar power can work,” though in the next sentence admits that the industry can succeed “especially if there are government subsidies involved.”

And therein lies the rub. The only reason these panels have made it to this biggest of big box stores is through a complex web of government subsidies that stretches the globe and touches every level of the solar panel production chain. It’s neat that your average Brit can easily purchase and install a solar panel array for his or her home, but this is not evidence of a healthy industry. And given the recent crisis in solar panel quality—the result of a global race to the bottom—we can only hope that these panels will be made of hardier stuff than the typical Ikea product and live past the seven years needed to justify the investment.

[Solar panel photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    IKEA has apparently not noticed the German solar debacle. Hopefully its customers have, and will take with a very last pinch of salt the promise of a seven-year ROI. The Catch-22 of solar is that if it did become wildly popular, governments would not be able to maintain the subsidies required to make it even close to cost-effective.

  • MWFlorida

    WRM, you naively assume that there is a free market in energy. In fact, conventional energy producers are heavily subsidized or otherwise supported by government policies. Oil companies receive tens of billions of dollars of subsidies every year. Electric utilities have a government mandated monopoly and operate on a cost-plus business model which virtually guarantees high profits. How do you expect upstart technologies to compete with these subsidized behemoths with guaranteed customer bases?

    The best answer of course would be to eliminate subsidies for all. But until that happens, don’t criticize renewable energy for receiving help that levels a very uneven playing field.

  • wigwag

    “…we can only hope that these panels will be made of hardier stuff than the typical Ikea product and live past the seven years needed to justify the investment.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    I am agnostic about Ikea selling solar panels and what the implications of that might be, but Professor Mead’s remark about Ikea is snarky and elitist.

    Has he ever bought anything at Ikea? Does he really have any idea whatsoever what the quality of the merchandise might be?

    Just because he can afford to appoint the Mead mansion and the lovely cottage near Bard with the finest furnishings doesn’t mean everyone can.

    Lots of young people, especially newly weds just starting out furnish their first homes by shopping at Ikea. Rather than insulting a company that attempts to provide stylish furniture at moderate prices, maybe Professor Mead should be congratulating Ikea a for its business model.

    Why Professor Mead feels the need to implicitly insult shoppers who like Ikea is a mystery. Maybe it’s just his version of a war on the young.

  • Fat_Man

    Our experience with Ikea furniture is that a 7 year life expectancy is about 5 years too long.

    The southernmost point in Great Britain is the Lizard, which is at 49 degrees and 57′ north. That is safely north of everything in the 48 contiguous states. Daylight in the winter is less than 8 hours, and wan light it is the sun not getting much more than 15 degrees in altitude. Solar power can be almost useless for them.

  • Bruce

    Does IKEA dispose of these toxic panels for you once the time comes, the way Sears will take your old washing machine when it’s time for a new one?

  • wigwag

    It’s hard sometimes not to chuckle at Professor Mead’s inconsistency. He’s so irritated at Ikea for experimenting with the sale of solar panels that he just can’t help accusing the discount store of selling shlock (or maybe it’s the Swedish meatballs they sell in their cafeteria that he doesn’t like).

    Yet a couple of years ago (July 24, 2011) he announced that another store famous for selling shlock was his favorite place to shop. The store that the Professor can’t get enough of is Walmart.

    Professor Mead is telling the truth; he loves Walmart. He loves them so much that he’s written more than 20 blog posts referencing the retailing giant. On August 2, 2011 he raved that “Walmart just gets greener every day.” On September 14, 2010 he implored his readers to “save the planet; shop at Walmart.”

    As it happens, Walmart is a proud supporter of solar power; in fact, the operator of thousands of big box stores is one of the most vocal advocates of solar power in corporate America. Not only does Walmart sell about ten different brands of solar panels, solar panels adorn the rooves of hundreds of Walmarts.

    For Professor Mead’s edification, here is a little bit of what Walmart had to say in a press release announcing the expansion of its solar program in California,

    “WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Walmart today announced its plan to install solar panels on up to 60 additional stores in California, expanding the company’s solar portfolio to more than 75 percent of its stores in the state, making California the first state in the nation where Walmart has devoted this level of commitment to renewable energy.

    “California presents a great opportunity for Walmart to make significant progress toward our sustainability goals by installing solar power on more than 130 store rooftops throughout the state,” said Kim Saylors-Laster, Walmart vice president of energy. “Walmart has reduced energy expenses by more than a million dollars through our solar program, allowing us to pass these savings on to our customers in the form of everyday low prices.

    Walmart is using a number of renewable technologies around the world to make progress towards the goal of being supplied by 100 percent renewable energy. To learn more about our commitment to renewable energy please visit our website.”

    What gives Professor Mead? Why is okay for your favorite store to proudly announce that they are enthusiastic supporters of solar power while you ridicule Ikea for merely experimenting with the sale of solar panels.

    You’re not suggesting that Ikea sells more shlock than Walmart are you?

    Shlock is shlock, isn’t it?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service