(Almost) Everyone Loves Solar

Americans want more power from the sun, but GOP politicians don’t. What’s an industry to do?

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Illustration by James Yang for TIME

You probably like solar energy. I know this because I recently got a press release from the solar lobby, “Poll Reveals Strong Support for Solar Energy Across Political Spectrum.” It turns out that 92% of likely voters, including 84% of Republicans, want more sun-powered electricity. In America, solar is motherhood and apple pie.

Of course, in Washington, even motherhood is a partisan issue, some super PAC is probably rebranding apple pie as a socialist dessert, and solar power is now a political football too. Thanks largely to President Obama’s stimulus bill, solar has become the U.S.’s fastest-growing industry, expanding more than tenfold in four years and adding more than 100,000 jobs. Prices have plunged nearly 50% since Obama took office.

(MORE: Why Climate Change Has Become the Missing Issue in the Presidential Campaign)

But many Beltway Republicans who had embraced green energy and green jobs turned against them after they became associated with the Obama agenda. Electric vehicles, which once enjoyed bipartisan support, became Obamamobiles, and Senator John McCain’s cap-and-trade plan became an assault on free enterprise. And the GOP’s solar talking points now begin and end with a bankrupt, stimulus-funded manufacturer called Solyndra, even though the stimulus also helped finance a half-dozen of the world’s largest solar plants and a nationwide effort to install solar panels on commercial rooftops.

Solyndra bashing doesn’t seem to be working: 78% of voters support government incentives for solar. Which brings me to another recent solar-lobby press release, “Statement on Romney Campaign Energy Policy.” Mitt Romney was once a green-friendly governor of Massachusetts, but his current drill-baby-drill policy could have been written by fossil-fuel interests. You would never guess that from the Solar Energy Industries Association statement, which bends over backward to emphasize areas of agreement: “America’s solar industry shares Governor Romney’s desire to achieve energy independence … We also applaud Governor Romney’s recognition that the federal government can help ensure access to diverse, reliable sources of energy … We also support Governor Romney’s desire to cut red tape.”

Special interests are always leery of antagonizing potential Presidents, and it’s possible that a popular industry like solar could persuade a President Romney to listen to the 92%. But this went beyond catching flies with honey. Take the soothing language about red tape. Romney has pledged to slash regulatory barriers to energy development on federal land, which could accelerate solar projects as well as oil and gas exploration. But given that Romney has called solar power “imaginary” while rhapsodizing about the coming petroleum boom and raking in petroleum cash, that probably wouldn’t be his main goal — especially since the Obama Administration has already slashed red tape for solar projects on federal land. In fact, the Administration has approved the first 17 solar projects ever built on federal land, which will produce enough renewable electricity to power 1.8 million homes. Its fast-tracking of solar development could power another 7 million homes.

The U.S. still has a fossil-fuel economy, with fossil-fuel infrastructure and rules that don’t penalize fossil fuels for broiling the planet. It’s understandable that clean-energy interests want to hedge their bets. If they’re nice to Romney, maybe he’ll be nice to them.

But Obama is already being nice to them. And when interest groups are studiously evenhanded, they signal to their friends that there’s no political upside to helping them and to their enemies that there’s no downside to screwing them. Environmental interests have a reputation for being shrill, but they’re often quite docile, going along with retrograde farm bills in exchange for conservation crumbs and supporting status-quo highway bills for a few bike paths. Solar and other green technologies need more than a few bones thrown their way. They need public policy that levels a playing field traditionally slanted toward fossil-fuel incumbents.

Maybe the best strategy for Team Clean Energy is to play nice and hope Republicans will play nice in return. But that’s not how Team Dirty Energy plays.

MORE: The New Oil and Gas Boom

11 comments
JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Another (not mentioned) problem with Solar and Wind is the lack of Grid Storage.   Producers can produce more power than the grid can use.    Consumers think only of paying for electricity. But producers occasionally have to pay to get rid of electricity.

We need Grid scale storage for electricity.  Consumers need power 24-7, not just when the Sun shines and the wind blows.  



JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Solar power is only expensive compared to dirty fuels like coal if you fail to price in the negative externalities, i.e. CO2 & Methane.

The traditional approach is to subsidize Solar. A better approach is to add a carbon tax to dirty fuels. Start slowly and increase it every year.  Green fuels (including solar) will compete on merit when priced competitively with dirty fuels.  Consumers will make energy decisions based on price (as they should) and eventually dirty fuels will be priced out of the market.

Dirty fuel producers may find ways to compete by creating cleaner fuels. Competition incentivizes results.


saso77
saso77

I don't think the same like zbigkid. Not only is free and green energy but the ROI when you implement solar energy is much shorter with the new findings.

ramonsalvia
ramonsalvia

@juanverde @jmsoria Pero el gobierno español insiste en arruinarnos a las familias que invertimos en enrgía solar, vivimos una pesadilla...

DeeinColumbiaMD
DeeinColumbiaMD

@MikeGrunwald @chevron Big Wind & Solar hedging their bets & Big Oil enlisting aid of GOP 2 kill its competition.

zbigkid
zbigkid

So 92% of Americans are dumber than I thought. Look folks - SOLAR PV is simply a non-economic proposition, even given the sun is free.  Here is why:

1. Installed costs, still run over $3 per watt, even though panel prices have dipped almost to $1 per watt.  An installed combined cycle gas fired power plant, that's 60% efficient, and takes up about 1/1000th of the space of an equivalent solar farm is less than half that same $3 per watt. 

2. For every watt of Solar PV panels that people install on their residences, in a grid tied fashion (meaning the solar panel is useless during a power outage), there has to be 2 watts to back it up. Thats 2 watts of fossil fired generation. Why 2 watts ? Because the generation has to run at part load, during the time when the solar is on, but as soon as its gone it has to increase its output to match what was lost from the solar panel. So the generation has to be double the size, to be able to be in a position to increase its output. If you make the solar panels able to run without being grid tied, in a stand alone set up, then you add at least another 50% to your total installed cost, so now you are talking $4.50 per watt. And even then you likely wouldn't be able to afford to size it to cover the peak kw consumption of your house with the A/C on. If you did, try tripling the price from there. At 11 cents/kwhr which most residential consumers pay less than that across the country, you won't ever get your out of pocket costs payed for by the "savings" during the life of the panels. That's just at the $3. Never mind the $4.50 per watt price of stand alone systems. 

3. So for the fruit cakes and nuts out there, who are installing solar on their homes because the feds give a 30% tax credit, and the states give another 30%, more power to you. Its still a phenomenal waste of your own money, and you'd be far better off spending the dollars on installing your own natural gas fired back up power gen set, that can power your home when the local utilities power goes out.  And you can do it at 1/3rd the price of a solar system that won't even put out 1/3rd of the kw that a natural gas fired on site generator would. 

So the energy from the sun is free, but the problem is fundamental the sun's energy is too dispersed, and simply takes too much PV materials and surface area to get the energy density most homes require.  And here's another tidbit. Solar accounts for less than 1% of the electricity generated here in the US, despite more than 30 years of "growth". Its infinitesimal, so even if you wanted to power far more of the US with Solar PV, it would take trillions more dollars, and more raw materials than are known to exist in the US to make the panels. Its a novelty at best folks, and will remain so for at least the next century. And even if you can get the panels cheap, a licensed installer will rip you off royally, because they know the government is subsidizing these. I know. I got quotes, and even though I'm highly capable of installing one myself, its just far too dangerous to get up on a 2 story roof, mess with electric wiring, and then worry about poking holes in the roof, replacing shingles, and the subsequent high cost of roof or panel replacement in the future. Plus try to sell your solar home to someone who doesn't know a thing about it. I'm a degreed mechanical engineer and been in the energy business for 25 years. I have no axe to grind against solar, and even built my own solar thermal panel in 8th grade. It was cool, but I am also very practical and realize the pro's and con's of everything from the technology itself to the power grid it would be connected to. Don't waste your time or money, even if you live in Phoenix or in the southwest. You're not going to beat the central power plant in price, or really save money.  

JaySun
JaySun

Guess what also has overwhelming public support? Safer cars andlower gas prices. It's so easy to declare superficial support for "moresolar power" but it's become clear that the public doesn't want to payfor it. Solar produces less than .5% of electricity in this countryprecisely because nobody wants to pay more than 11 cents per kwh ontheir electric bill.

solar-rocks
solar-rocks

I guess if Mitt wins, I will have to rename my company from Perihelion Renewables (s0lar) to Perihelion Fracking, Drilling and Other Very Very Despicable Things

dvdptr@12
dvdptr@12

Thank you Michael. I would add that the fundamental problem is that, at this point, the cost of solar energy still exceeds its benefits. Who will pay the difference? The answer breaks along party lines.

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

@zbigkid OK some of your info is out of date.

First if you upgrade the power lines to "smart" ones you reduce the back up power.

Second if you use solar and wind together it will reduce fossil fuels from being used as backup.

In Texas we have a more segregated grid than most of the country, we upgraded our lines to effectively carry wind powered energy. I use 100% Green electricity. .11 $ per KWh. As good as Nat. Gas around here.

As far as wires and holes look up transformers that attach to the back of the solar panel, then it's only 1 hole near your box, just plug one into the last one and so on. The wire goes into your box as AC. Not nearly as bad as 5 or 6 years ago. 

Bottom line, if we don't start now, we will not be able to make better break throughs and make it all mainstream.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@zbigkid "You're not going to beat the central power plant in price, or really save money."  This a true statement but only if we fail to price in the negative externalities of dirty fuels.  Clean fuels are more expensive than dirty fuels but only if we turn a blind eye to pollution costs.  We can either price in the cost of pollution at the source or tax society later to clean up the results of pollution.