Solar Panels Create Less Heat Than Solar Energy Activists

September 26, 2013

This week, the Wall Street Journal is publishing four pieces I wrote addressing various aspects of energy and environment policy. You can read them all at the WSJ Experts page. There are some nice pieces by others as well, so it is worth a look at all of the articles.

My first piece of the week, however, has caused the most stir. I argue that solar energy is extremely inefficient and a very poor way to reduce carbon emissions. There are a number of comments attacking my argument and I thought I’d address them here since they are typical of the arguments made for solar energy everywhere, even in Washington state.

First, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) goes the typical route, accusing the “Washington Policy Institute” of partnering with “climate contrarian groups.” Their critique would be more persuasive if they could actually get the name of our organization correct.

Someone we did partner with this year, ironically, is Governor Jay Inslee, whom the greens call the “greenest governor in the country.” He included one of our ideas in his climate bill and we testified in favor of that bill. Perhaps he is now considered a “climate contrarian.”

The UCS also doesn’t like the fact that I have criticized the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The UCS defense of the Agreement is evidence they don’t care about actually reducing carbon emissions. The Mayors’ agreement was long on promises, but failed to produce any real results. In fact, Seattle, where the agreement started, failed to meet the promise to meet the Kyoto targets promised in the agreement.

It gets worse. In Washington state, for example, none of the Mayors who signed the Climate Protection Agreement met the goal. None. Instead of complaining about the lack of results, however, the UCS defends the mayors whose policies wasted time and money. What matters, the effective climate policy or politics? The UCS chooses politics.

Second, some of the comments question my motives, accusing me of being paid to oppose solar. This is nonsense, but it is a throwaway line and easier than arguing the data. Ironically, many of the commenters admit working for solar manufacturers or installers. Who is really being paid off here?

Third, many comments note that the price of solar is declining rapidly. This is true. The problem is that the cost is still extremely high. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) note the price of solar continues to be much higher than other renewables. McKinsey and Bloomberg New Energy Finance both say the cost of solar compared to other carbon-reduction strategies is very high. That may change, but solar is still nowhere close. Spending scarce resources today in the hope that it will pay off sometime in the future runs counter to claims by climate alarmists that “we have no time to lose” in cutting carbon emissions.

Other critics play with the math and claim my sources (like the EIA) are wrong. They are free to look at the studies I cited. The math in the rebuttals, however, ignores one source of subsidy or another: federal production tax credit, state-based subsides, utility subsidies, renewable portfolio standards, etc. For example, in addition to the federal PTC, Washington state pays more than 50 cents a kWh for distributed solar energy. If, as some claim, solar subsidies are small, why pay seven times the going rate for solar energy and waste so much money for so little energy? The clear reason is that such enormous subsidies (on top of federal subsidies) are required to make solar pencil out.

Some make claims like “I am making money on my solar panels,” ignoring that it is subsidies, not the underlying technology, that is earning the revenue. The fact that they are making money is testament to political largesse, not solar energy’s viability.

Interestingly, some of the comments claim I have no source for my arguments, while others question my sources. It is either one or the other.

Even those who claim to look at my sources (like the UCS), still don't claim solar has parity with other renewables. The UCS claims utility-scale PV, as opposed to rooftop solar, is better then nuclear (others, like the EIA, disagree). Even if that is true, however, the most efficient form of solar energy is still more expensive than other renewables. If you care about the environment, you want to put money where we receive the greatest carbon reduction for every dollar. Solar, especially rooftop solar, fails this test badly and wastes huge amounts of money that could help the environment.

They, and others, also claim solar is comparable in price to "peak power." This is telling because it admits how expensive solar is. Peak power is the most expensive. By comparing solar to the most expensive form of energy, they admit solar is very expensive. They are still incorrect, but even making this argument indicates the games that have to be played to justify solar's cost.

Next, some ascribe positions I do not hold. Many accuse me of supporting subsidies for fossil fuels. This is false and is made without any basis for the claim. My support of a price on carbon should settle that, but glib accusations are easier than research.

Finally, some are incredulous that I claim “solar energy is one of the worst ways to reduce carbon emissions.” How can that be since it is carbon-free?

The simple answer is that it costs a huge amount to produce a kilowatt hour of solar energy and displace a carbon-emitting kilowatt hour. Every ranking of various approaches to cutting CO2 place solar power as a high-cost, low reduction approach. Essentially, we are paying a dollar to get a dime. True environmentalists demand every dollar spent to reduce emissions yields the maximum reduction. Phony environmentalists are satisfied with efforts that appear to be addressing the problem even as they fail.

Politicians love to spend huge sums of money on solar energy. It is an easy political win. The environment, however, doesn’t care about politics. Massive solar subsidies do more for politicians than the environment.

Comments

Two additional points.. Many

Two additional points..

Many long term solar contracts essentially make the end user a speculator in the price of wholesale electricity...adding an arbitrary escalator yearly the the cost per KWH.

These long term contracts discourage bidding on a yearly basis KWH which in the future may be less expensive to the end user. (In MA there is a possibility that municipalities can enter into a contract with Hydro Queebec, the largest supplier of essentially solar power in region). long term contracts discourage other more efficient and potentially greener alternatives.

Tax Credits can be sold on the open market. Who buys them for $.75 on the $1.00. oil companies who are profitable. So in essence solar is reducing the tax burden on carbon producing companies...Many oil companies (Chevron) have solar divisions that take the whole $1.00 of tax credits, further reducing tax burdens..

The tangle web of unintended consquences when the market is distorted by government. "Blinded by the Green Light".

I have also heard that some developers take the tax credit and run, shocking.