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September 27, 2017

Utility-Scale Solar, Part 2: Failed Promise

September 27, 2017
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Last week, Part I of this post challenged the declaration by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) that the levelized cost of central-station (utility-scale) solar had fallen to six cents per kWh.

Specifically, EERE does not account for important costs that would double its estimate, in the range of 11 cents and 14 cents per kWh.[1] These hidden costs concern solar’s (corrected) intermittency, lower operational life, higher transmission costs and special tax benefits.

Relative competitiveness, not press-release claims, is controlling because solar is not an infant industry and conventional technologies are not standing still. Natural-gas-fired generation, in particular, is one-fourth cheaper than the cost of central-station solar, according to DOE’s nonadvocacy arm, the Energy Information Administration. Gas-fired electricity is also a reliable, not intermittent, product.

Ancient, Not Infant

Solar is the mother and father of all energy. It is also one of the oldest, in terms of technical applications to concentrate solar rays to generate steam and electricity.

Solar collection dates from the 17th century, with numerous (market-based, off-grid) applications emerging in the twentieth century.[2] Central-station solar dates from at least 1911, when the Sun Power Company built more than 10,000 feet of solar collectors to generate steam for machine power.[3]

Observing a solar plant, the Arizona Republican concluded in 1904: “[I]t is safe to say that solar power will be one of the great influences of the new century and will make the arid regions of the West and other parts of the world the theater of the greatest industrial revolution of the future.”[4]

Past Solar Hyperbole

Excitement and exaggeration about the prospects of central-station solar date took off in the 1970s, not to recede. Some examples follow.


“In 1970, two University of Arizona scientists attracted national attention with an ambitious proposal to turn more than 5,000 square miles of the southwestern United States desert into what they called a ‘national solar power firm’ capable of supplying all U.S. electricity needs in the twenty-first century.”[5]


“Mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years.”[6]


“The private sector can be expected to develop improved solar and wind technologies which will begin to become competitive and self-supporting on a national level by the end of the decade [1990] if assisted by tax credits and augmented by federally sponsored R&D.”[7]


“I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.”[8]


“Within a few decades, a geographically diverse country such as the United States might get 30 percent of its electricity from sunshine, 20 percent from hydropower, 20 percent from windpower, 10 percent from biomass, 10 percent from geothermal energy, and 10 percent from natural-gas-fired cogeneration.”[9]


“The Enron Corporation plans to build a plant in the southern Nevada desert that would be the largest operation in the country making electricity directly from sunlight, producing enough to power a city of 100,000 people. It is expected to begin operating in late 1996.”[10] [It would not be built.]

“[T]he cost of solar power generation has quietly declined by two-thirds. Far from depending on some wondrous breakthrough, the experts say, Enron can offer commercially competitive solar power by inexpensively mass-producing solar panels, and then employing thousands of them in the Nevada desert.” [11

“Enron is pledging to deliver the electricity at 5.5 cents a kilowatt- hour in about two years. That would beat the average cost of 5.8 cents currently paid by the Government for the electricity it uses. The national average retail price is 8 cents.”[12]


“Solar and wind energy technologies appear to be entering a ‘takeoff’ phase of the kind that personal computers experienced in the early 1980s.”[13]


“Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel.”[14]


“One can argue that PV is growing at such a rate that it’s on its way to becoming mankind’s largest enterprise.”[15]


In addition to claiming victory on its 2020 target three years early, DOE’s EERE optimistically referenced these 2030 cost-reduction goals: central station, $0.03/kWh; commercial solar, $0.03/kWh; and residential solar, $0.05/kWh. New rounds of funding are centered around these targets.

Why involve taxpayers and have government direction? Solar is not an infant industry. Past claims about competitiveness and impending market penetration ring hollow. Other technologies are still far cheaper, while being dispatchable (unlike solar).

Level-playing-field competitiveness, not press releases, must decide winners and losers. Off-grid solar, in fact, has a free-market niche unlike grid-connected solar. Such remote electricity does not require government involvement. This is reason enough to scale back, if not eliminate, government largesse in this area.

[1] Excluding the hidden costs of solar, the Energy Information Administration, estimates central-station solar at 7.4 cents per kWh, 23 percent higher than EERE.

[2] Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81 (January 1988), p. 27.

[3] Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 365.

[4] Ibid., p. 367.

[5] Ibid., p. 408.

[6] Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 151.

[7] Booz, Allen & Hamilton (Study for the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association, and Renewable Energy Institute). Renewable Energy Industry, Joint Hearing before the Subcommittees of the Committee on Energy and Commerce et al., House of Representatives, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983), p. 52.

[8] Statement of Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association. Quoted in Solar Power, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 12.

[9] Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Beyond the Petroleum Age: Designing a Solar Economy (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 1990), p. 47.

[10] Allen Myerson, “Solar Power, for Earthly Prices,” New York Times, November 15, 1994.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Christopher Flavin and Odil Tunali, Climate of Hope: New Strategies for Stabilizing the World’s Atmosphere (Worldwatch Institute, 1996), p. 48.

[14] DOE Secretary Steven Chu (March 23, 2011). Quoted here.

[15] Greg Wilson, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Quoted in John Fialka, From ‘hippie thing’ to hundreds of mirrors and 1,000 degrees. E&E News, September 26, 2017.

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