Solar Power: Two Worlds Solar

Posted May 12, 2011 | folder icon Print this page

Two headlines in this week’s press underscore the two worlds of solar power—one economical/commercial and the other uneconomical/government-dependent.

Solar Power Means Less Batteries and More Bullets for U.S. Marines (Wall Street Journal: May 9) describes how lightweight solar arrays can save space and weight for marines in combat. The micro, off-grid application “has surpassed our expectations,” remarked one colonel.

Such is one of many of off-grid, micro applications that have given solar a niche for much of the last century outside of special government favor. SunDanzer Development, Inc. of Arizona, for example, run by free-market advocate David Bergeron, regularly tests and commercializes niche products. “It’s Saturday. I’m testing a new solar powered vaccine refrigerator that uses ice packs rather than batteries to store energy and maintain cold temperatures,” Bergeron wrote at MasterResource some months ago.

“This is a key component of the distribution chain for vaccines and part of a global effort to eradicate polio and other preventable diseases.” Many other examples could be provided: haven‘t we all seen the solar panel powering a street lamp on a desolate stretch of highway?

The other headline, “Florida Legislature Kills Solar Energy Bill,” (sub. req’d.) describes how lawmakers rejected the large taxpayer/ratepayer cost of on-grid solar in the sunshine state. In other states such as Texas the story is the same: special government subsidies are no longer affordable in a time of budget deficits and a tight economy.

The point is that solar, unlike industrial wind, has a market niche. Remote small-scale applications offer energy where there is otherwise none. As such, solar is a first step to scaled-up, on-grid electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear. Renewables, in such cases, are a bridge to nonrenewables, not the other way around as commonly depicted by energy transformationists.

On-Grid Solar: Prohibitively Expensive

But on-grid solar must compete against far more concentrated, reliable energy sources. The Energy Information Administration (U.S. Department of Energy) estimates that the levelized cost of photovoltaic solar technology to be $0.21 per kilowatt hour (kWh), solar thermal technology to be $0.31 per kWh, compared to $0.07 per kWh for natural gas-fired combined cycle, $0.10 per kWh for conventional coal, and $0.11 per kWh for advanced nuclear. (These levelized costs are estimated for the year 2016, the first comparable year given that the construction time to build each of these plants differs with nuclear plants taking the longest.) Only offshore wind is more expensive than solar with a levelized (2016) cost of $0.24 per kWh.

Conclusion

Free-market solar stands in stark contrast with government-enabled solar. Some solar companies such as SunDanzer Development want to focus on consumer-driven opportunities and would rather not have the influx of competitors on the government gravy train. And for good public policy reason. As SunDanzer’s Bergeron concluded:

Solar PV has many great applications. It has the ability to be transformative to the billions of people who live removed from the electrical grid. But tying PV to the grid in order to give ourselves the illusion of creating a better world is counterproductive, and the sooner we commit our scarce resources to real solutions the better off we will all be.

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