RELIABILITY OF RENEWABLE ENERGY: SOLAR
Many Americans are looking to limit the use of fossil fuels, and policymakers have responded by subsidizing and mandating solar-generated electricity. These government policies drive the growth of solar power, not market forces. One way to determine whether policymakers have made beneficial decisions regarding solar power is to examine its reliability as an energy source. In the Reliability of Renewable Energy: Solar report, the Institute of Political Economy (IPE) at Utah State University examined the economic, physical, and environmental implications of solar power’s reliability. IPE found that solar power is an unreliable source of electricity. Because solar power is not reliable, subsidizing solar power is a misallocation of taxpayer dollars.
Solar power is not economically reliable because the solar industry is heavily dependent on government mandates and subsidies, and without these policies, the solar industry is not self-sustaining. This dependency means that taxpayers are financially supporting an industry that cannot support itself.
The most prevalent mandates for solar energy and other renewables are renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which are state-based mandates that require certain portions of a state’s energy production to come from renewable sources by a certain date. Many RPS mandates require that states use specific types of renewable energy. For instance, New Jersey has mandated that 4.1 percent of their electricity must come from solar power by 2028. Mandates like RPS incentivize energy companies to build more solar facilities than they otherwise would have and make the solar industry grow artificially fast.
Net metering is another state-based policy that allows private homeowners with solar panels to earn credit when they produce more electricity than they consume. The two-way flow of electricity from net metering requires large investments in grid equipment and maintenance, but solar panel owners are not charged for these subsequent costs. Net metering transfers the burden of solar-caused grid maintenance from solar panel owners to non-solar users.
While solar power does not produce greenhouse gases directly, it has hidden environmental costs that limit its environmental benefits. The inconsistency of solar power forces grid managers to “cycle” other energy sources like coal or natural gas to provide backup power when sunlight is not available. Cycling fossil fuel power plants to back up solar power makes solar power less clean than most people assume.
One of solar power’s largest hidden impacts is water depletion in arid regions. For example, CSP plants use water for cooling and PV plants use water for panel washing. Solar power plants may compete with municipalities, agriculture, and wildlife in water-scarce areas.
Pollution is another environmental concern with solar power. Because of increased demand for PV panels, Americans rely on cheaper Chinese producers. The downside is that Chinese manufacturers have been known to improperly dispose of harmful wastes, resulting in environmental degradation. When manufacturing wastes are improperly disposed, pollutants such as silicon tetrachloride and hydrofluoric acid may contaminate the environment.
Solar power is not physically reliable because it is inconsistent, inefficient, and cannot meet electricity demand. Because sunlight is not always available, the actual energy output of solar plants is much lower than their potential output. For example, the median output of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants is only 38 percent of their potential, and the median output of photovoltaic (PV) panels is only 20 percent of their potential.
Because it is inconsistent, solar energy depends on more reliable sources of energy for backup such as coal and natural gas. Energy storage could alleviate some of solar power’s intermittency and dependence on backup generators, but grid level energy storage is still a developing technology.
As solar power plants continue to be built in remote locations, electricity providers will need to invest more in grid infrastructure, such as new transmission lines, which cost billions of dollars. These costs will be passed on to energy consumers and taxpayers
Simply put, solar power is inefficient and unreliable. Because sunlight is not always available, solar power cannot consistently meet electricity demand and relies on backup power sources. Solar power costs more than people think because tax dollars are used to prop up the solar industry, and electricity providers must compensate for solar power’s variability with backup power sources and better infrastructure. Because these high costs outweigh solar power’s limited environmental benefits, solar power subsidies and mandates are not a beneficial investment of taxpayer money. Whether solar power will become reliable or economical within the next few decades is an open question best addressed by markets, not government subsidies or mandates.