The problem with solar energy

Norman Rogers:
Utility scale solar in the sunniest climates can generate electricity for about 7 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh). Outside of the sunny south the cost is about 9 cents per KWh. Most of the cost is capital cost, amortized over the life of the plant. Government subsides often cut the price in half for users of solar electricity.

Residential rooftop solar, under the best conditions, may generate electricity for about 15 cents per KWh. Usually the cost will be considerably higher. Not everyone’s roof faces south and not everyone lives in a sunny climate.

A fundamental error is to suppose that if solar could generate electricity at a cost equal to conventional generators it would be competitive. The leading type of conventional generator is combined cycle natural gas. These plants can generate electricity at a cost approaching 3.6 cents per KWh, or 2 to 3 times cheaper than solar. In order to be competitive, solar has to generate power not just cheaper than the alternative, but, as will be explained, cheaper than the fuel consumed by the alternative.

Solar is undependable. It does not work on cloudy days or at night. It stops working if a cloud passes in front of the sun. Yuma, Arizona, is the sunniest city in the U.S. Even in Yuma, there are 50 cloudy days and 365 dark nights a year.

Adding solar to the electric grid does not displace conventional generating plants. Those plants are still there. They just work a little less, sitting idle when solar is working. The only money solar saves is the fuel that would have been consumed by the plants that are idle because solar is generating electricity. Natural gas plants, or coal plants, consume 2-3 cents worth of fuel per KWh. Nuclear plants consume 0.4 cent per KWh and hydro plants don’t use fuel. As a practical matter, to be competitive, solar has to compete with natural gas plants, the dominant alternative to solar. Unless the total cost of utility-scale solar is about 3 cents per KWh, instead of 7 to 9 cents, it is not going to be competitive with gas. The less-efficient gas plants consume about 3 cents worth of fuel per KWh of electricity produced.
There is more.

The inability of solar energy to modulate the flow of energy to meet demand is one of its biggest flaws.  When utilities rely on large solar farms if they somehow produce more energy than can be consumed they have no way to reduce the flow.  So you have teh State of California actually paying other states to take the excess energy produced during daylight while they still have the cost of traditional energy plants that are needed when the sun does not shine on the solar panels.


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