D. Dowd Muska


The Sun Will Soon Set on Solar

July 30, 2015

It’s time to add another item to the List of Things Hillary Clinton Knows Nothing About.

As part of a larger plan to combat “climate change” -- an “urgent challenge that threatens all of us” -- the wannabe 45th president has set of goal of increasing “the amount of installed solar capacity by 700 percent by 2020.”

Does the world’s smartest woman have an estimate for her scheme’s likely price tag? Does she have even a guess at the opportunity cost of such an “investment”?

No and no, of course.

Clinton won’t join us on the trip, but let’s take a tour of solar’s unworkability. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistics shop for D.C.’s bloated and inept energy bureaucracy, recently released 2013 electricity data for all 50 states. We’ll start in Arizona, which the National Weather Service identified as America’s sunniest state. Two years ago, Barry Goldwater’s homeland obtained 1.86 percent of its electricity from solar. California’s share was 1.91 percent. Solar’s contribution to power generation in Nevada, third in catching rays, was 2.05 percent. New Mexico (1.08 percent) and Texas (0.04 percent) round out the top five.

The abysmal performance of solar in the nation’s most unclouded places boggles the mind, when one considers the perks. In 2013, federal support, in the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, and expenditures on research and development, totaled $5.3 billion. It’s a safe bet that since the 1970s, solar has received over $100 billion in taxpayer giveaways.

Again, that’s just at the federal level. Politically correct power gets goodies from all levels of government, and it’s mandated in a majority of states. Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas each have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) -- a decree that electricity providers use “clean” fuels to generate juice. But the requirements, once sacrosanct, are increasingly under fire. Earlier this year, Kansas made its RPS voluntary. A repeal made its way through the Texas Senate earlier this year, and to the west, New Mexico’s House of Representatives approved a bill to halt the Land of Enchantment’s RPS from rising to 20 percent in 2020.

The retreats are motivated by concern for ratepayers’ wallets. The EIA estimates that in 2020, the cost “of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle,” per megawatt hour, using combined-cycle natural gas, will be $75. Photovoltaic (PV) is projected to be $125, and concentrated solar power (CSP), a whopping $240.

Greens fantasize that gee-whiz improvements -- nanotech, Internet connectivity, etc. -- will bring down solar’s priciness. Maybe, but nuclear, natural-gas, and coal plants will be able to take advantage of technology advancements, too.

Even if solar becomes somewhat affordable, environmental concerns may pose insurmountable obstacles. Sunlight’s “low energy density,” an MIT analysis found, imposes a need for large tracts of land. And once those rays become concentrated, critters need to watch out. In April, a report found that the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System killed 3,504 birds during its first year of operation. Water is another potential solar showstopper. It’s necessary, MIT found, for “cleaning mirrors, in the case of CSP plants, and panels, in the case of PV plants.”

Finally, there’s the NIMBY factor. Crunchies love solar, but only if it’s the right size, in the right place, and owned by the right people. In Southern California, activists are fighting “irresponsible corporate solar farms.” Florida’s NextEra Energy Resources has proposed a facility at the abandoned Roy Williams Airport. Joshua Tree residents are livid. The Desert Sun reported that the locals believe that the power plant will “hurt tourism, stir up dust and threaten their community’s rural character.”

Clinton’s advisers tell her that solar is cutting-edge -- an impressive leap into a future without “fossil” fuels. Not exactly. In 2014 testimony before Ohio’s legislature, the Institute for Energy Research’s Travis Fisher noted that there’s nothing new under the dream of sun power: “The first solar cells were made in 1883 by American inventor Charles Fritts. The first photovoltaic cells powerful enough to run everyday electrical equipment were created in 1954.” MIT’s study concluded that “CSP power is not based on a new technology,” but the Rankine thermodynamic cycle, “which has been in operation … for more than a century.”

If its mandates and subsidies vanished, the solar “industry” would rapidly dwindle into nonexistence. Good riddance. Solar is expensive, unreliable, and no friend to wildlife. Only energy ignoramuses believe it should have a big role to play in U.S. electricity generation.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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