2017 and the new administration is creating a Maginot Line in the fight for clean sustainable energy in the US. Alternative facts, half truths, and deliberate misstatements have really been with us for a long time, especially with regards to renewable energy and its counterpart, the fossil and nuclear industries. The perceived backtrack on renewables in favor of coal as a foundation once again in our electricity generating future is one of the most blatant lies. The battle is coming to a head within the next few years, as basic economics and the marketplace, and not politics, determine the direction of electricity generation and the fuel for transportation vehicles. These are currently the two big users of the traditional hard energy. Renewables are charging full speed ahead, and it’s because of economics. Over the past few months there have been many reports and sources documenting the exponential growth of megawatt capacity and very large number of jobs currently in the solar and wind sector.
For the past 20-30 years, THEY (and I’m going to lump all the conservative economists, industry leaders, think tank analysts, and politicians) have said solar is too expensive, and the cost of solar cells needed to decrease to 50 cents/watt to be competitive. Today, those costs are between 25-25 cents/watt, and are continuing to decrease. The cost of the equipment (the power plant) is decreasing, along with the O&M (fuel, operating, and maintenance costs). Today, renewables are the cheapest path to electricity, even without subsidies, when all the true costs are taken into account.
Here are some of those alt-truths. THEY told us that solar panels would not last over 20 years, and thus when they were amortized over their lifetime, they were just too expensive. Today’s reality is that solar panels will last a long, long time. Manufacturers are warranting them for 25+years, and most say that a good panel may even last “forever” since there are no moving parts. The framework and glass encapsulation materials have gotten better; and as with anything, a well made product can live up to industry expectations. If a solar array is amortized over 30-40 years, as most industrial power plants and other facilities, the true cost is reduced. Add to that the fact that there is no fuel cost, and that there is minimum maintenance, and the cost over that “lifetime” is really low.
Since the sun’s energy is not available 24/7, a 33% capacity factor is relatively valid. But what has not been readily discussed is the value of the electricity produced during the day, when the greatest demand (peak power) required the purchase of expensive “peakers” electricity…usually gas fired turbines which would run for very short periods of time during the day and throughout the year. A lot of those have a lower capacity factor; yet they have been constructed and sit idly by. Solar is slowly surpassing the need for this expensive electricity, as seen just recently in California where there was so much free/solar electricity available for about six hours, resulting in a negative price for wholesale electricity for a certain time of that day.
Renewable technology will continue to expand, with increased efficiency, lower production costs, and new products and applications such as Tesla’s solar roof shingles (“Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, last twice as long, cost less and by the way generates electricity, and that’s including the labor costs and without subsidies for solar.”) The ultimate realization that solar has minimal Operating and Maintenance costs (fuel, maintenance, replacements, and operational labor), can be placed literally anywhere there is a beam of sunlight, the integration of vast new electricity storage components, and the inevitable upgrades and modernization of the Grid, all make the future look very bright.
Of course there are many obstacles and problems ahead. Some of THEY worry that as the costs come down, there won’t be any incentive to invest and make money. Electricity will be too cheap to meter! Some utilities continue to fight the integration of solar into their ancient and out-dated business models. Wyoming and Indiana are trying to outlaw solar (it is un-American, whereas coal is) by placing heavy taxes on its production. PG&E in California is leading the way in re-thinking, re-organizing, re-structuring it’s entire operations…from shutting down it’s 2000MW baseload Diablo Canyon reactors, to modernizing how available electricity is distributed from where it is produced to where it is needed.
The bottom line is that we have reached the point TODAY where renewables are cheaper, cleaner, afford individual freedom of choice, and require less government regulation. It is a shame that the greed and simple mindedness of our current political powers are letting America’s leadership in clean sustainable energy and its economic benefits slowly slip away. But the sun will continue to shine and the wind will blow, and the enormous potential is still there!
An interesting article snuck into the relatively conservative “The Economist” last December kind of broke the old mold: