Through a panel, darkly: a case study in internet BS detection

I set out to answer a simple question: How much energy does it take to make solar panels? A quick DuckDuckGo search led me to this website [archive] which says:

it would cost about 200kWh of energy to produce a 100-watt panel

But something about this website seemed “off”. I suspected that it was an AI-generated SEO page designed specifically to appear in search results for this question. If so, then that gives me reason to doubt the truth of the answer. I checked their About us page [archive] and my suspicions grew.

The page lists four names: “Elliot Bailey, Brad Wilson, Daniel Morgan, Joe Ross”, which sound like they were selected from a list of the most common first and last names. The portraits also look a lot like the output of (What kind of strange jacket is “Elliot Bailey” wearing?) Furthermore, if I search Google Images for them, I find no photos of these people except the exact same ones from that website. One would think, if these people are leading solar energy magnates, that at least one picture of at least one of them from another angle would exist.

The page also gives the address “1043 Garland Ave, San Jose, CA”. When I look this up on Google Maps, I find a tiny strip mall containing a tattoo parlor, a ballet studio, a food bank, and a martial arts school—but no sign of a solar panel manufacturer. And if I go to their supposed LinkedIn profiles, I get three pages that you need to sign in to view, and one “Profile Not Found”.

So, I’m now pretty convinced that “Sol Voltaics” is not actually a real company and that none of these people actually exist. But what incentive could someone have had to set up such a deception? Are they trying to sell me something?

I go to their Products page [archive]. Interestingly, it seems like they don’t actually sell any of their own products. Instead, the page consists of affiliate links to products sold by other companies: Bluetti, Anker, Rich Solar, etc. Are these also “fake” companies? I don’t have the time or wherewithal to look into it. But at least it seems I can actually buy products from them if I wanted to, which is more than I can say for “Sol Voltaics”.

My best guess is that “” is really just an elaborate marketing campaign for those companies. I imagine some savvy hustler approached them with a proposition of driving clicks to their websites in exchange for a cut of ensuing sales, and then to this end used AI to crank out a search-engine-optimized website in an afternoon. (Or maybe this “savvy hustler” isn’t a real person either, and the entire process was initiated by an AI? I don’t think we’re at that level yet, but perhaps we will be soon.)

Which all brings us back to the initial question: Can the statistic provided on that website be trusted?

it would cost about 200kWh of energy to produce a 100-watt panel

There are two conflicting considerations:

  • The website’s content was generated by a process optimizing for clicks, which is indifferent to truth—if “200kWh” had been replaced with “50kWh”, the search engine result would have ranked just as highly. And it’s needlessly costly to design an AI that cares about truth when its goal is just as easily achieved by a system that makes up numbers at random.

  • All else equal, AIs are slightly more likely to generate true facts than false ones, because they’re trained on text written by humans, of whom at least some inherently value truth-telling, while the rest generally don’t have an incentive to lie about specific facts like the amount of energy it takes to produce a solar panel.

Overall I would give around 60% credence that the statement is correct. The mere fact that it’s presented in the context of a sketchy-looking website isn’t itself proof that it’s false, but if I were the Secretary of Energy I would certainly not base important policy decisions on this information. (And yet, one wonders if this kind of thing has already happened...)

This ruse was easily unmasked, but it could’ve been made much more convincing with just a little more effort. Current image-generating AI can create pictures of people from multiple angles, wearing different clothes, or in groups. They could’ve given the address of a large generic office building that gives no hints as to what goes on inside. They could’ve generated detailed LinkedIn profiles with employment histories pointing to other, equally fictitious companies. Perhaps they could even have been featured in the news, on a website spun up for this purpose. How much of this is flying under the radar—or will, in the coming years?

At this point I’m fully expecting a commenter to come forward saying “Actually I’ve met Elliot Bailey—he’s a really smart guy.” But I would take this more as evidence that said comment is itself AI-generated than as evidence that Elliot Bailey, CEO & Chief Editor of Sol Voltaics, is a real flesh-and-blood member of the species Homo sapiens. I won’t believe anything unless I see it with my own two eyes.

The Information Age kicked off with such promise! But now I have no better knowledge of what’s going on in the world than did a medieval villager, hearing tales of faraway magic.