Solar Subsidies, Environmental Impact and “True Cost”… Who is Right?
The virtual world of social medial is a funny place. It’s not like science. There is no “Occam’s Razor.” A lot of questions are posed, but if the answer is not to the questioners liking, it is SO easy to find another answer that comfortably fits within their reality tunnel. Debate is often petty, and minds are rarely changed.
That said, when I visit the Solar Tribune Facebook page, I am generally impressed with the level of discourse among the commenters. There is some trolling, to be sure, but the solar critics are generally polite and when engaged by pro-solar posters, raise valid questions. Kudos to our readers- you are obviously an intelligent bunch!
I wish I had more time to engage in some of these discussions, but that just isn’t possible (or productive.) However, I would like to dedicate my column this week to discussing some common points that come up with readers who are critical of solar post to social media. My intention here is not to “debunk” talking points, because, most often, there is a kernel of truth even to the most seemingly outlandish claims. My intent here is to fill in with a little perspective around some of the most common claims.
Full disclosure: I’m sure that readers will wonder about my own political leanings. I am an independent, and I will admit to being what might most commonly be referred to as a “libertarian.” I am an advocate for personal freedom and limited government. I generally accept the validity of scientific evidence indicating the human effects on global climate, but I am skeptical of the effectiveness of policy solutions to the problem. I am an advocate for solar as a tool of individual freedom and local economic development, and it is my opinion that positive environmental impacts happen when individuals and communities are empowered. Obviously, I annoy both my Democrat AND Republican friends!
That said, let’s take a look at some common solar critiques from what I hope is a reasonably non-partisan viewpoint.
“Solar wouldn’t survive without government subsidies.”
The problem is, no one seems to be able to agree on the rules when it comes to discussing subsidies. What counts as a subsidy and what doesn’t? Direct payments, grants and “forgivable loans,” sure. But what about tax breaks? What about the other energy sectors- how do we compare apples to apples? Do we measure subsidies on an annual basis? Historically? Per Gigawatt of nameplate? Per Gigawatt hours of production?
The fact of the matter is, there would be no national energy grid without government intervention, so the discussion of any sector of the utility industry existing without subsidies is naive at best and dishonest at worst. This is borne out most clearly in the case of rural electrification, where a massive government program wiped out the fledgeling wind power industry in the early 20th century and replaced it with government sanctioned monopoly utilities and coal-fired power plants. Government has picked a lot of winners before solar was ever invented. If you are arguing against current solar subsidies and not arguing against nuclear or natural gas subsidies, you just aren’t being honest with yourself.
Finally, global demand, not US federal energy subsidies, is now driving down the price of solar generation. Both federal and state subsidies are on the decline and being phased out, and installed capacity keeps skyrocketing. The bottom line is; complaints about subsidies have always been somewhat disingenuous, and are now virtually irrelevant in the discussion of solar energy production. If you believe in the power of the free market, it’s time to celebrate solar’s victory.
“Solar power is actually “dirty” power.”
Producing electricity with solar cells creates no air pollution. But what about before the panels are installed? Photovoltaic (PV) panels are manufactured, and like any manufacturing process, there are going to be questions about the environmental impact of that process. There are naysayers out there who will make claims that there is more energy used to create the panels than they will produce over their lifetime of use. Others claim that the chemical waste generated in manufacturing PV panels is worse than the pollution from conventional generation that they replace.
It is true that early solar panel production was extremely energy intensive in the early days, utilizing huge coal-fired furnaces to convert quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon. However, in the past 10 years, big technical improvements in panel production and efficiency have PV panels operating solidly in the black from an energy standpoint.
There is a legitimate ecological concern, though, about the chemicals used in production. Refining metallurgical-grade silicon to polysilicon produces huge amounts of liquid silicon tetrachloride, which can be recycled to make more panels, as it is in American or European manufacturing facilities, or, it can be dumped on the ground, as it often is at Chinese solar plants. And currently, more than half of the world’s solar panels are made in China.
“Solar costs other utility customers more money.”
Utility company lobbyists across the country are putting on a hard press in state legislatures and at utility commissions in an attempt to convince lawmakers and regulators that owners of solar arrays are creating a hardship for the utility companies and their other customers by feeding power on to their distribution lines. In reality, the utilities are unhappy about solar-producing customers receiving net-metering—retail credit— for their power. The utility companies are looking to use service charges to make independent solar ownership less financially attractive to the average Joe or Jane.
In reality, the benefits of solar on the distribution system has benefits which the utility companies don’t like to admit. Solar production matches peak demand, especially during times of heavy air-conditioning usage. More solar means less costly system upgrades, and reduces the need to build expensive new natural gas peaking plants. Many state utility commissions have found that the value of net-metered solar actually EXCEEDS retail rates when public benefits are included.
Sadly, this is simply a short-sighted attempt by government-sanctioned monopoly utilities to maintain the status quo. They would prefer to build their own solar, in large, central station solar farms and pump it out onto an expensive new grid. Meanwhile, solar plus storage options are around the corner, and their approach will push large numbers of consumers off their grid in years to come.
“Solar farms are bad for the environment.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. In many cases, their is legit evidence that solar farms, particularly those huge plants built in the sensitive desert areas of the Southwest do present significant negative impacts to the local ecological system. There simply is no denying that. In other agricultural areas that have already been significantly altered, this may not be an issue. In fact, taking some areas out of agricultural production and installing strategically designed solar may lead to reducing chemical runoff and other positives. Is the reduction of dependence on dirty fossil fuels mean that solar farms are a net positive for the environment? That can only be determined on a case to case basis.
One often-repeated talking point that we can put to bed is the claim that solar kills birds and bats. Some kills have been reported at large concentrated solar power (CSP) plants where parabolic mirrors concentrate sunlight to boil water and drive steam turbines. But these plants are pretty rare, and with the price of PV going down, that technology will not be widely deployed. PV panels are less dangerous to birds and bats than building windows.
“Solar can never replace baseload generation.”
“Solar only works when the sun is shining. Therefore, it can never be counted on to replace baseload generation.” This one makes perfect sense. And yet, it is only partly true. With wider and wider deployment of solar, it does not replace baseload generation, but rather reduces the need for baseload generation. Coupled with other renewable sources, wind, biomass, hydro etc, baseload demand from “always on” coal burning plants simply becomes unnecessary. Don’t believe it can work? Portugal ran a nationwide test in May in which the entire national grid operated on 100% renewables for four days.
As for the United States, we are already seeing a large move away from coal-fired baseload for a number of reasons, some environmental, but mostly economic. A combination of highly efficient new natural gas plants and widely distributed renewable generation are radically changing the baseload profile of the American electrical generation market. Singling out solar and claiming that it won’t replace baseload demand is akin to arguing that we shouldn’t adopt the automobile because it won’t replace a mule.
Sadly, arguments over solar—like so many other issues debated over social media—are being fought across partisan battle-lines drawn by the two major American political parties. Democrats are pressured to accept renewable energy adoption as part of an unquestioning unified front in favor of climate change policy, without really educating themselves about the details of the issues. On the other side, Republicans are fed climate change “denier” and so-called “free market” talking points that are equally as hollow as those put forward by their opposition.
The truth lies somewhere in the gray middle between black and white, and until both sides agree to drop their “my way or the highway” reactionary stances, policy-making will be equally binary. Across the globe, solar and other renewable energy technology is ready for prime-time. We can take part and help shape the new energy economy, or we can be on the outside. We can be demanding cleaner, American-made solar panels, or we can accept inferior Chinese products. We can demand equal access to the electrical grid, or we can watch our neighbors build their solar + storage systems behind the meter where they create no public benefits… at the same time watching our own grid power price climb, while the infrastructure decays.
As for our Solar Tribune friends across social media… thanks for participating, and thanks for caring. Keep the conversation going! At the same time, please remember that technology is non-partisan, and always moves forward. It is up to us to use technology in a positive way. As an old lobbyist pal of mine used to say, “We can be at the table…or we can be on the menu.”
Rich Dana is a 20 year veteran of the solar industry. He is a former Energy Specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and Senior Partner at Plan B Consulting LLP. His clients have included GoSolar, ReneSola, Bergey Windpower, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Alliant Energy and the USDOE.