SALEM, Ore., April 22, 2014 — 2014 is the supernova year for solar power. It’s at the zenith of its growth cycle before it fades away in 2015. That’s when taxpayer-funded subsidies dry up. Solar won’t be cost competitive with fossil fuels until after 2019, which will be its undoing.
First, the good news is that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) published a graph showing solar power’s impressive growth over the last four years in its March 2014 Monthly Electricity Update report.
Solar power capacity has increased sixfold since 2010!
Most impressive of all is that half the new capacity comes from net metered solar panels built on top of homes and businesses. That’s as much as all the new solar power plants built by utility companies!
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“Net metered” means that solar homes and businesses are allowed to send their excess electricity back into the power grid and get paid for it! It’s a great solar panel selling point.
The graph also shows that photovoltaic solar panels, by far, are the main source for solar power. That’s because solar thermal, using mirrors to focus sunlight onto steam turbines, costs twice as much as solar panels, according to EIA 2019 projections.
The bad news
Twelve thousand megawatts capacity sounds like a lot. It isn’t. First off, solar has the lowest capacity factor of all electric power sources, at 25 percent. That means that 12,000 megawatts of capacity only averages 3,000 megawatts of usable electricity.
Solar provides 1.13 percent of all the electric capacity in the United States, according to this month’s EIA report. Accounting for its low capacity factor, solar supplies only about 0.5 percent of usable U.S. electricity.
President Obama often speaks in glowing terms about renewable solar energy, especially its impressive growth, but the truth is that even after a sixfold increase, solar power is barely measurable.
The really bad news
2014 is as good as it gets for new solar electric capacity.
The EIA projected new capacity for both solar and wind in 2015 is even worse than they look in the above graph. They have far lower capacity factors than all other energy sources, so produce much less deliverable electricity than the others.
Worse, they don’t provide a constant supply of electricity either. Solar doesn’t produce electricity at night. Windmills don’t produce electricity when there’s no wind.
Worst of all, they are non-dispatchable, meaning they can’t be turned on and off when needed. They have to be backed up by fossil fuel sources, which today is usually natural gas.
Not many people remember the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). They should. In one form or another, it funded most of the solar power capacity that is coming online this year and next.
All remaining ARRA funds must be spent by the end of this year. Solar was slower than ARRA-funded wind power to come online. State and local governments, as well as utility companies, have all anteed up for solar, but can’t do it forever.
After 2014, public subsidies for solar power will be much harder to come by, as evidenced by the 2015 EIA projection above.
The problem facing solar power is that solar is just too expensive compared to other electric power sources.
For example, in 2019 the EIA forecasts the levelized cost of natural gas electricity will still be less than half the cost of solar panels. Solar can’t compete with that.
Net metered solar power is also taxpayer subsidized. Not only are those funds drying up, but utility companies that promoted net metering just a year ago now want to charge a grid usage fee because net metering is cutting into their profitability.
The only way solar can regain its phenomenal growth rate again after 2015 is for a huge amount of taxpayer-funded subsidies get approved and/or consumers pay a lot more for electricity. Neither possibility seem likely before 2019.