During a Democratic Party fundraising swing out West, President Barack Obama dropped by Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for a photo op with a 140 acre array of 72,000 solar photovoltaic panels. The president praised the installation, declaring it
"a shining example of what's possible when we harness the power of clean, renewable energy to build a new firmer foundation for economic growth."
The Nellis solar facility cost $100 million and can produce 15 megawatts of electricity when the sun shines. So how does this compare with conventional sources of power? The Electric Power Research Institute recently released a report which found that a 1,000 megawatt conventional coal-fired plant would cost about $2.8 billion to build.
A rough scaling up the Nellis solar facility to a 1,000 megawatts at $100 million per 15 megwatts would mean that a comparable solar plant would cost $6.6 billion to build. But wait, there's more. Coal-fired plants operate at about 90 percent capacity, so a truly fair comparison would take into account that a solar plant generally operates at 30 percent of its rated capacity. That would mean that a solar photovoltaic plant using the technologies available at Nellis would actually cost nearly $20 billion to build in order to produce the same amount of power that a conventional coal-fired plant would.
Of course, new breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies may make those costs go way down in the future, but using the current Nellis-type technologies (even with production economies of scale) do not seem to be a way "to build a firmer foundation for economic growth."
But doesn't this fulfill President Obama's much touted promise of creating "five million new green jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced, and help end our dependence on foreign oil"? Well, the solar panels at Nellis were manufactured in the Philippines and assembled in China. Don't get me wrong, if American taxpayers and ratepayers are going to be forced to use solar power, by all means, let's buy the panels from the cheapest sources possible. Even if it increases our dependence on foreign solar.
See also President Obama's praise for a similarly costly facility in Denver here. That array of panels reportedly has a pay back time of 110 years.