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October 19, 2009

The U.S. doubles down on solar subsidies while Europe retreats

October 19, 2009
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The cap and trade bills circulating in Congress (such as H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey bill) not only “tax” the people of the nation for the right to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country, but they contain additional energy-related “tax” provisions.[i] One of these is a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that requires 20 percent of electricity generation to come from qualified renewable technologies by 2020.[ii] This is a “tax” because it requires those utilities unable to meet the required percentage to purchase renewable credits from those that can exceed the targeted amount. The higher generating costs incurred from constructing and operating the renewable technologies, or buying renewable credits, will be passed on to the users of the electricity. These “taxes” are in addition to the generous tax-funded subsidies already provided to many qualified renewables.

The concept of an RPS is not new. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of RPS[iii], but few states are meeting their mandates,[iv] and these states have often tailored their “qualified renewables” liberally to what makes sense to their area. Texas, a state that has met its mandates mainly from wind-generated power, the least-cost qualified renewable, is now considering expanding into more costly renewables, such as solar power. Houston, for example, is considering using solar to generate 1.5 percent of its government’s needs from a 10-megawatt plant to be built by NRG and to be operating by July 2010. When the sun is not visible, the plant will be backed-up by the city’s natural gas-fired generating units.

The proposed 10-megawatt Houston plant is estimated to cost $40 million[v], $4,000 per kilowatt, which is a smaller cost figure than many other solar project estimates and most probably speculative. And, that $4,000 per kilowatt is also far more costly than other generating technologies that are more reliable to boot. For example, the Energy information Administration (EIA), an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, is estimating the cost to build a coal-fired plant at about half the estimated cost in Houston, or just over $2,000 per kilowatt, and a natural-gas fired plant at less than a quarter of that cost, at below $1,000 per kilowatt. [vi] EIA’s estimate for a photovoltaic plant, which is what is being proposed in Houston, is just over $6,000 per kilowatt, 50 percent higher than the NRG cost estimate.[vii] In fact, photovoltaic solar is the highest-cost generating technology of EIA’s slate of 20 potential technologies for generating this country’s future electricity needs.[viii]

European Experience

However, we do not have to use EIA’s cost figures to know that solar is non-competitive with conventional grid generation. Several countries in Europe have already implemented RPS type programs with hefty subsidies funded by the country’s taxpayers. They include Spain, Germany, and Denmark. For example, in Alvarado, Spain, the energy firm Acciona inaugurated a 50-MW concentrating solar power plant in late July. The cost is €236 million, about $350 million U.S., or about $7,000 per kilowatt.[ix] Construction of the plant began in February 2008, with an average of 350 people working throughout the 18-month construction period. The plant will be run by a 31-person operation and maintenance team. This is the second solar plant of this type built in Spain. Its predecessor has been operating since June 2007.[x]

Spain ranks second in the world in installed solar capacity, second only to Germany.[xi] To achieve that ranking, Spain initiated legislation that requires 20 percent of its electricity generation to be from renewable energy by 2010. To make renewable energy attractive to investors, Spain also subsidized its renewable technologies. In 2008, for instance, when solar power generated less than 1 percent of Spain’s electricity, its cost was over 7 times higher than the average electricity price. Due to feed-in tariffs, utility companies were forced to buy the renewable power at its higher cost. And not only is solar power more expensive, jobs that could have been fostered and continued elsewhere in the Spanish economy were foregone to meet the government’s renewable mandates. A Spanish researcher found that while solar energy employs many workers in the plant’s construction, it consumes a great amount of capital that would have created many more jobs in other parts of the economy. In fact, for each megawatt of solar energy installed in Spain, 12.7 jobs were lost elsewhere in the Spanish economy.[xii] Recently, the Spanish government decided to slash subsidies to solar power. Spain will subsidize just 500 megawatts of solar projects this year, down sharply from 2,400 megawatts last year.[xiii]

Germany—the world’s highest ranking country for installed solar capacity and the largest market for solar products—is also slashing its subsidies for solar power in order to ease costs for electricity users. Owners of solar panels receive as much as 43 euro cents (64 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour of power they generate.[xiv] The Energy Information Administration calculates the levelized cost of electricity[xv] from solar photovoltaic power to be 39.57 cents per kilowatt hour (2007 dollars) in 2016,[xvi] far less than the German subsidy. According to some German researchers, the feed-in tariff for solar is 43 euro cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), making solar electricity by far the most subsidized technology among all forms of renewable energy. This feed-in tariff for solar photovoltaic power is more than eight times higher than the electricity price at the power exchange and more than four times the feed-in tariff paid for electricity produced by on-shore wind turbines. Because of solar power’s low capacity factor, solar generated only 0.6 percent of Germany’s electricity in 2008.[xvii] Since the sun doesn’t always shine on solar plants, solar power cannot compete with more mature generating technologies. The EIA estimates the capacity factor for solar in 2008 to be 17 percent.[xviii]

U.S. Subsidies

While the U.S. does not have feed-in tariffs at this time, it does subsidize solar power through investment tax credits that are as high as 30 percent currently and until 2016. Solar also benefits from a permanent investment tax credit of 10 percent in the U.S., and a 5-year accelerated depreciation write-off. The Energy information Administration estimates that total federal subsidies for electric production from solar power for fiscal year 2007 were $24.34 per megawatt hour, compared to 25 cents per megawatt hour for natural gas and petroleum fueled technologies—98 times higher.[xix] Yet, even with these subsidies, solar generated only 0.02 percent of U.S. electricity in 2008.[xx] That is because solar at around 40 cents per kilowatt hour is more than 4 times as expensive on a levelized cost basis than its fossil competitors. (EIA estimates that levelized costs for conventional coal are 9.46 cents per kilowatt hour and those for natural gas combined cycle are 8.39 cents per kilowatt hour (in 2007 dollars) for 2016.[xxi])

Of course, the U.S. is

slow in learning from Europe’s experiences. On October 12, 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law S.B. 32, a feed-in tariff that requires California utilities to buy all renewable generation under 3 megawatts within their service territories, until they hit a state-wide total cap of 750 megawatts.[xxii] How California will monitor this program is yet to be seen. It has yet to achieve its renewable generating mandates from its RPS program.[xxiii]


Solar power has it place in certain applications. As always, the individual citizen or company should be able to choose if solar works for their energy needs. But using solar power to generate electricity for the electrical grid is very expensive. Requiring ratepayers to buy solar power, either through renewable energy mandates or through feed-in tariffs, will only increase the price of electricity. The last thing the economy needs is higher energy prices, but that is exactly what solar energy’s supporters are promoting.





[i] Robert J. Michaels, The Other Half of Waxman-Markey: An Examination of the non-Cap-and-Trade Provisions,–FINAL.pdf

[ii] H.R. 2454, section 101

[iii] Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), North Carolina State University,

[iv] Traci Watson, States not meeting renewable energy goals, USA Today, Oct. 8, 2009,

[v] “Solar forecast: expensive”, Loren Steffy, Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2009,

[vi] Energy information Administration, Assumptions to the Annual Energy outlook 2009, Table 8.2.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Sonal Patel, Power Digest, Power Magazine, Sept. 2009,

[x] Sonal Patel, Interest in Solar Tower Technology Rising, Power Magazine,

[xi] Solar Energy Industries Association,

[xii] Study of the effects on employment of public aid to renewable energy sources, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, March 2009,

[xiii] Wall Street journal, “Darker Times for Solar-Power Industry”, May 11, 2009, .

[xiv] “Merkel’s Coalition to “Definitely” Cut German Solar subsidies”, Brian Parker and Nicholas Comfort, Bloomberg, October 12, 2009,

[xv] The levelized cost of a generating technology is the present value of the total cost of building and operating the generating plant over its financial life.

[xvi]“Levelized Cost of New Electricity Generating Technologies” , Institute for Energy Research, May 12, 2009,

[xvii] “Economic impacts from the promotion of renewable energies”, Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaft sforschung

[xviii] “Solar forecast: expensive”, Loren Steffy, Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2009,

[xix] Energy information Administration, Federal Financial interventions and Subsidies in Energy markets 2007, .

[xx] Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 7.2a,

[xxi]“Levelized Cost of New Electricity Generating Technologies” , Institute for Energy Research, May 12, 2009,

[xxii] Greenwire, “California: Schwarzenegger signs feed-in tariff, spate of enviro bills”, October 12, 2009,

[xxiii] Robert J. Michaels, “A National Renewable Portfolio Standard: Politically Correct, Economically Suspect,” Electricity Journal 21 (April 2008)

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