Recently, several readers -- feeling depressed after reading that a promising type of clean, renewable energy was seemingly weakening the earth’s very life force -- asked us to check a claim circulating on social media that "solar panels drain the sun’s energy."
Rest easy, readers: The claim stems from a bit of satire being passed along by the scientifically gullible.
In mid May 2014, the website National Report published an article headlined, "Solar Panels Drain the Sun’s Energy, Experts Say." Here’s an excerpt:
"This week, a scientific research facility in Wyoming made a startling discovery that is certain to change the way millions of Americans look at the environmentalism movement, after they found conclusive evidence that solar panels not only convert the sun’s energy into usable energy, but that they are also draining the sun of its own energy, possibly with catastrophic consequences far worse than global warming.
"Scientists at the Wyoming Institute of Technology, a privately-owned think tank located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, discovered that energy radiated from the sun isn’t merely captured in solar panels, but that energy is directly physically drawn from the sun by those panels, in a process they refer to as ‘forced photovoltaic drainage.’
"‘Put into laymen’s terms, the solar panels capture the sun’s energy, but pull on the sun over time, forcing more energy to be released than the sun is actually producing,’ WIT claims in a scientific white paper published on Wednesday. ‘Imagine a waterfall, dumping water. But you aren’t catching the water in buckets, but rather sucking it in with a vacuum cleaner. Eventually, you’re going to suck in so much water that you drain the river above that waterfall completely.’
"WIT is adamant that there’s no immediate danger, however. ‘Currently, solar panels are an energy niche, and do not pose a serious risk to the sun. But if we converted our grids to solar energy in a big way, with panels on domestic homes and commercial businesses, and paving our parking lots with panels, we’d start seeing very serious problems over time. If every home in the world had solar panels on their roofs, global temperatures would drop by as much as thirty degrees over twenty years, and the sun could die out within three hundred to four hundred years.’"
However, people passing along this story by email appear not to be aware that the National Report is a satire site.
As we noted just a few days ago in another check of a National Report piece that went viral, the site’s tongue-in-cheek disclaimer says, in part, that "the views expressed by writers on this site are theirs alone and are not reflective of the fine journalistic and editorial integrity of National Report."
The urban-legend investigation site Snopes.com has archived an even clearer disclaimer that has since been removed. The former disclaimer said, "National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental." (Snopes also debunked the solar panels story on May 25, 2014.)
We checked with a solar energy expert to make sure we weren’t missing something, and they agreed that the sun-draining claim is pure hokum.
"The sun is really big, really far away, and constantly producing mind-boggling amounts of energy through nuclear fusion. It couldn’t care less about your puny solar panel," said Mark Thurber, associate director of Stanford University’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.
The closer you read the National Report item, the more obvious the satire becomes. It turns out that the Wyoming Institute of Technology only exists as a website, with an obviously fake backstory. "WIT," according to the website, was originally founded in 1943 as the Wyoming Institute of Education and Nuclear Energy Research (WIENER, get it?) and has purportedly invented such technologies as "smellovision," the "space toilet," the world’s first computer virus, "the world’s first 100% organic artificial nose, which was created for pop-star Michael Jackson in 1999," and the "E-condom."
As is often the case, what you see on social media isn’t accurate. It’s not true that "solar panels drain the sun’s energy." This claim originated with a satirical site, and it has no basis in science. Cue the solar flares: It gets a Pants on Fire.