Tom McClintock




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Solar Sophistries
Costs of solar power still don't add up

By Senator Tom McClintock

4/05/2001

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Ever since the back-to-nature administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, politicians of both political parties have boasted that "California leads the way" in environmentally sensitive policies.  One of the linchpins of these policies has been to actively discourage the construction of conventional power plants in California, preferring such trendy alternatives as "solar power," the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic panels.   

As the energy shortage has intensified, so too has the commitment to solar power.  The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering a $100 million bond to build a photovoltaic generator for the city. California already offers to subsidize half the cost of household solar panels, and $50 million of additional subsidies was recently approved overwhelmingly by the State Senate.

At first glance, the advantages of photovoltaics are intriguing. Modern solar panels use a fuel that is inexhaustible and costs exactly nothing.  It is not necessary to store the power for evening use: home rooftop photovoltaic panels can pump electricity into the grid during the day when most people are not at home, run the meter backwards and cancel out the cost of drawing from the grid in the evening hours.

With advantages like these, one wonders what took the San Francisco Board of Supervisors so long to think of it - and why the world, or at least California, hasn't "gone solar."  Photovoltaic technology has been around since its discovery by Edmond Becquerel in 1839.  After many years of intense solar subsidies, less than two one hundredths of one percent of California's power is produced by photovoltaics.  What's wrong with this picture?

In all the solar exuberance, politicians would do well to heed the old maxim, "When it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true."  

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Consider first the production cost.  The cheapest photovoltaic panels cost $6,000 per kilowatt to manufacture, producing peak power for about one fifth of the day under average conditions.  Thus, to replace the 52.8 gigawatt-hours daily output of the single nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon would cost about $66 billion - enough to build 13 Diablo Canyons, or 22 comparable nuclear plants with today's technology.   Just to recoup the material costs would require 26.8-cents per kilowatt-hour over the 25-year life of the facility.  This compares poorly to the 3-cent per kilowatt-hour that nuclear power now costs for construction, operations, maintenance and decommissioning.

And that doesn't include land costs.  A modern photovoltaic panel produces about 10 watts of peak power per square foot under average conditions.  Replacing Diablo Canyon would require 35.9 square miles of solid solar panels.

Such comparisons aren't fair, say the solar enthusiasts.  Solar cells can be distributed among rooftops, producing all the power that homes would need.  Never mind that solar panels don't work in the shade and that shading is a major factor in reducing air conditioning needs.  An average home consumes about 19 kilowatt-hours of electricity each day.  To meet this demand would require a peak capacity of 4 kilowatts of solar panels, at an initial cost of $24,000. At six percent interest, that homeowner would pay $154 per month, for the 25-year useful life of the panels or roughly twice the current average monthly electricity bill.

Why then, are homeowners purchasing them?  Because solar panels are heavily subsidized with taxes, which hides their true cost.  Even with 50 percent subsidies, the best that solar panels can do is to match the cost of today's expensive electricity.  And the comparison is illusory, since it would require roughly $100 billion in new taxes to provide such a subsidy to every family in the state.

Solar energy has taken great strides in efficiencies in the last ten years, but then again, so have nuclear power and many other technologies.  If the industry's progress continues, someday the economics of solar energy may pencil out.  But at this moment in history, it doesn't.

The great tragedy is that politicians routinely tout the solar option as the cure for the state's electricity shortage.   It is the same tragedy created when quackery diverts seriously ill patients from proven remedies until it is too late to save them.  The precious time since the electricity crisis became obvious last year has been squandered with such solar sophistries, and summer now approaches with no time left to build the conventional power plants to meet the demand.  

Related links:
Impeach Gray Davis

http://www.grayout2002.com/.

Senator Tom McClintock represents the 19th State Senate District in the California Legislature.  His website address is www.sen.ca.gov/mcclintock. You can e-mail him at Senator.McClintock@sen.ca.gov

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