Obama Among the (Costly) Solar Panels Again


Apparently, the White House communications staff thinks that reprising President Jimmy Carter's fantastic solar power photo ops from 1977 is a really nifty way to signal to the public just how forward thinking President Barack Obama is. 

Carter solar panels

For example, the president was featured earlier this year wandering around the solar panels on the roof of the Denver Science Museum (pay out time 110 years). Later, a field of solar panels (cost 7x more than conventional power) at Nellis Air Force Base served as the backdrop for yet another presidential jobs creation, I mean, renewable power initiative.

This week the president announced another job creating energy scheme and, once again, his handlers sought out some shiny solar panels for him to stroll among, the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center owned by Florida Power and Light. FPL spent $150 million building the 25-megawatt facility which will, reportedly, supply enough electricity for 3,000 homes.

Obama at DeSoto

Now let's do a rough calculation of the costs of DeSoto Solar versus conventional power sources. According to the Electric Power Research Insitute, a modern 1,000 megawatt coal plant without carbon capture technology would cost about $2.8 billion to build. Adding carbon capture would boost the cost to as much as $4.7 billion.

The 25 megawatt DeSoto facility cost $150 million. Scaling it up to 1,000 megawatts would cost $6 billion. But coal power plants operate 90 percent of the time snd solar only 30 percent, so in order to get the equivalent amount of electricity out of solar plant would mean tripling the capital cost for a total of about $18 billion. In other words, building a solar power plant costs between 4- and 6-times more than conventional, or even carbon capture, power. Even worse, a scaled up DeSoto-style plant costs 18-times more than a natural gas plant.

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  1. Yeah, but how else are we going to send a message to the sun to stop fucking with us?

  2. You can’t put a price on the future of the planet.

    1. That’s because we haven’t got numbers that high…

    2. If we use Open Source Solar then it’s free as in warez, right?

    3. Unless, you’re talking nuclear power, in which case we have to do an extensive cost-benefit analysis lasting several years, backed up by weekly public hearings.

    4. If an alien race came to this planet a billion years from now they wouldn’t even know humans ever existed.

  3. “””In other words, building a solar power plant costs between 4- and 6-times more than conventional power. “””

    This guy recently signed us up to a 1.5 trillion defict, money isn’t an issue for him. It’s about going green at any cost.

  4. Which is worse for landfills, discarded solar tiles or disposable diapers?

  5. We need something to put all of that Open Space to good use.

  6. But coal power plants operate 90 percent of the time snd solar only 30 percent, so in order to get the equivalent amount of electricity out of solar plant would mean tripling the capital cost for a total of about $18 billion.

    That would be true if coal and solar plants generated the same amount of power per hour. Do they?

    1. The cost per megawatt analysis is based upon peak output. Obviously, modern power plants operate at the appropriate power level to meet demand. Solar panels have no equivlant capability. Their output is driven by the light falling on them at any given time. This makes them extremely inefficient without a means to store excess capcity (batteries) or to sell the excess capacity to someone else. Of course, if the sun ain’t shining, jack shit is coming out.

      So your question is actually of little value.

  7. What about the footprint? How much land has to be leveled to support the proper positioning of the panels towards the sun? I assume hills would be bad because they would generate shadows for any panels on the down- or back-sides of them.

  8. I assume hills would be bad because they would generate shadows for any panels on the down- or back-sides of them.

    South facing ridgelines would work fine.

  9. Um, good job including capital costs, but not include the cost of inputs needed to run the plant (that is coal or natural gas), considering that sunshine is free.

    Probably even if you include those, coal is still cheaper, although then you have to include the costs to society that illnesses caused by the pollution produced by coal create, plus the costs to society of the carbon emissions from global warming.

    1. Throw in the toxic chemicals and rare metals requied to manufacture solar panels as well as the cost and environmental impact to retire the panels when they wear out several decades before the coal-fired plant.

    2. Costs to society of the carbon emissions from global warming: 0. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

      Costs to society from the carbon dioxide emissions of Al Gore and his co-religionists: $60 trillion+ (in 2008 dollars) plus an estimated 2 billion+ lives if these AGW Kool Aid Drinkers ever get their way.

  10. Ronald Bailey writes: “Now let’s do a rough calculation of the costs of DeSoto Solar versus conventional power sources, such as clean, cost-effective Koch Energy.”

    P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs, thereby conceding my points and showing the childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians. Dozens of comments here have shown that the phrase “fascist libertarian” isn’t an oxymoron.

    1. Huh. Witty.

      Shut your gorilla mask, lonehacko.

    2. Is this supposed to suggest that Reason is publishing this because of some connection to Koch Energy? I haven’t found such a connection, but even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re not correct in their analysis of the costs of these technologies. If you think Reason is wrong, give us reasons why the substance of the article is incorrect, but you shouldn’t rely on mere innuendo to convince anyone you’re right.

      Which comments have suggested fascism in any way? Obviously one cannot consistently be both a libertarian and fascist, which is why “fascist libertarian” is indeed an oxymoron.

  11. @GeoTPF: “Probably even if you include those, coal is still cheaper, although then you have to include the costs to society that illnesses caused by the pollution produced by coal create, plus the costs to society of the carbon emissions from global warming.”

    Off on a little tangent here — I also wonder how the cost efficiency of solar power production has improved over the years, and when (or if) it will catch up to coal-based power production.

  12. “In other words, building a solar power plant costs between 4- and 6-times more than conventional, or even carbon capture, power. Even worse, a scaled up DeSoto-style plant costs 18-times more than a natural gas plant”

    That’s not a surprise.

    If solar or wind were even remotely competitve on costs, the true believers wouldn’t have to be continously jawboning for government mandates and subidies for it.

    Now Ron, give us a new cost comparison on what the costs would be for building a 1,000 megawatt breeder reactor nuclear power plant.

    1. Mo’ nukes! Mo’ nukes!

    2. …the true believers wouldn’t have to be continuously jawboning for government mandates and subsidies? Really?
      Perhaps you could explain the $70 billion that the fossil fuel lobby gets versus the $1 billion for solar. Haven’t they got coal power figured out YET?
      The interesting thing is that a home based system can be installed for less per watt than the big solar farms. Why? Almost every state, city and local utility has enough incentives to make it palatable for the homeowner. The same should be done for the commercial power supplier.
      Besides, I disagree with your figures.
      Perhaps you can also let us know why it is that the utility companies have signed for an additional 6% solar power over last years numbers.
      And have you not heard of Masdar, UAE?

  13. @John Tagliaferro

    Wouldn’t south-facing ridgelines would still have an unproductive back-side? If you had a series of rolling hills, wouldn’t there be a lot of unproductive or less than fully productive land?

    Trying to get a sense for how these fields need to be built for maximum efficiency.

    1. Flat Desert. Even with maximum density per acre and almost no cloud cover to worry about, they do not have a positive business case for large scale operations.

      1. Plus a lot of environmentalists are already up in arms because the best locations for solar farms will be environmentally-sensitive deserts which would be devastated by the massive solar installations.

      2. But we would be spoiling the pristine desert! Why don’t you just advocate drilling for oil in Alaska while you are at it?

    2. Then Obama may order better ridgelines built under his full employment plan.

  14. But, if we switch orbits with Mercury, we can get sunlight 100% of the time. We just half to make sure we tide lock the Western hemisphere sunward.

    Problem solved.

    1. That won’t work. What about the rest of the planet?

      If we relocated closer to the center of the galaxy, then we would have sunlight everywhere 24/7.

      1. It could be Obama’s addendum to the Monroe Doctrine: We will fight to defend sunlight for the Western Hemisphere; any attempt to capture sunlight for the Eastern Hemisphere will be fought off by the US Navy. Until the oceans boil away, but hey, at least we won’t have to worry about the coasts anymore.

        1. And we can be one big happy global family, walking from continent to continent.

    2. half? have.

      Does that count as Freudian? I mean, it doesn’t involve sex with your mother.

      1. “Does that count as Freudian? I mean, it doesn’t involve sex with your mother. ”
        Funniest thing I have read in weeks.

    3. Mecury is not actually tidal locked with the sun, or at least not in the way that causes the same side to face the sun all the time.

  15. Why do they keep trying to scale up solar arrays to compete with traditional centralized power plants? Solar works (not great, but it does work) in low-output settings where it wouldn’t be economical to run power lines. I actually get most of my electric power from solar, and have no serious complaints; I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. But if there was a power pole nearby I’d probably have made the call because…well, sometimes there are, you know, clouds. Also keeping them clear of snow is a bitch at the moment – and for the next several months.

    Seriously, solar has its applications. But trying to replace coal- or oil- or nuclear-powered electric generation with them? That’s ridiculous.

  16. Carter Caption:

    When I say I worship the son of God I really mean the Sun.

  17. The case for solar would be in highly-distributed installations within the existing grid. For example, in most places in the US, peak electrical demand is a hot, sunny day. If every house had a half-dozen panels to help with the peak demands of the air conditioner, then the power companies could build smaller plants or support more customers with existing plants.

    Building massive solar farms is for PR period.

  18. You also didn’t mention the 10% power output drop at 10-years and the 20% power output drop at 25yrs.

  19. Aren’t solar thermal power plants a lot more efficient than photovoltaic, and they can store the heat and thus operate at night? I would also assume they have less toxic biproducts of production.

    Although I agree that coal and especially nat gas are cheaper, Reason really needs to talk to a scientist and at least know what technologies to compare.

    1. Of course the urban green thumpers prefer photovoltaic because they can put one on their roof, and use the energy to power their apple laptops and blog.

    2. Passive Solar Design

      One day last January when the high for the day was 5 above zero, my heat did not run from 9 am to 4 pm. It was a beautiful sunny day.

      1. I’m talking about things like this. They only make sense in high sunlight areas like the desert and innefficiency in transporting electricity is probably the largest draw back.

          1. Obviously different technologies work in different situations. It is equally as silly to say that solar isn’t a solution as it is for proponents to toute it as a major (or the) solution [that’s not dirrected at you kinnath].

          2. I haven’t seen anything that would indicate it has value for anything other that providing electricty to a remote facility where it would cost too much to run wire out to the facility.

            1. Maybe, but a lot of major power sources are far from their users [ie Niagra falls]… I don’t know the actual economics of this type of powerplant, but my point is that there is a lot more to solar than photovoltaic cells, and it seems that reason and the H&R blog are often dismissive of these technologies, some of which I presume can stand on their own economically.

              1. What’s the difference between solar thermal and photovoltaic?

    3. MP: Talked to lots of scientists and engineers too.

      With regard to concentrating solar power, from my article Energy Futures to which I linked in the post:

      Solar thermal plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight into a small area to produce heat, which is used to make steam for driving power generators. Some solar thermal plants consist of acres of parabolic mirrors focusing sunlight on tubes containing liquids, which then heat water into steam. Another configuration involves gigantic dish mirrors concentrating sunlight onto a Stirling engine, which drives a piston that turns a power generator.

      Technology invented: In 1981 the Solar One thermal power plant was built in Daggett, California, as a joint project of the U.S. Department of Energy, Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the California Energy Commission.

      Federal research dollars since 1976: $2.5 billion

      Carbon emitted: none

      Cost per facility: $12.5 billion

      Production cost of a kilowatt-hour: 17.9 cents

      Estimated production cost of a kilowatt-hour in 2025: 17.9 cents

      In other words, CSP is 2 to 3 times more expensive than conventional coal or coal with carbon capture.

      1. Didn’t I see one of those in a James Bond movie?

        1. The man with the golden gun, I believe.


  20. But coal power plants operate 90 percent of the time snd solar only 30 percent, so in order to get the equivalent amount of electricity out of solar plant would mean tripling the capital cost for a total of about $18 billion.

    I must be missing some part of the logic equation.
    1) Only 30% of the time Solar works.
    2) That means that 70% of the time it doesn’t
    3) So the solution to cover that 70% of the time is to build a solar farm 3 times as large?

    Using average electrical output over a period of time doesn’t makes sense, after all that would just mean that 70% of the time you would have 3 times as many solar panals acting as lawn ornaments and I still wouldn’t be able to watch the latest installment of “The Girls Next Door.”

  21. Up here on the tundra we need power most when the sun is up least which renders solar panels…well…useless as tits on a boar hog.

  22. i can solve our energy problem in 5 years, build some Fucking Nuke Plants!!!! they are safe cheap and effecient, and we already have a billion dollar storage facilitly sitting waiting in a cave soemwhere that is 90% finished, thenit was abandoned, NUKE power is the way to go, the way of the future, sure lets use solar for small scale and wind for small scale, but replace all coal/ nat gas with nuclear and the demand and use of oil/nat gas goes down. also nuke plants emit no carbon footprint, or very little! oh wait that makes fucking snse, so that means the gov aint gonna do it!

    1. Indeed so.

      And make the nuclear power plants the breeder reactor type.

      There’s some renewable energy for ya!

  23. With a worthless dollar what incentive will an energy company have to invest in any technology. I’m looking into buying a treadmill generator, and some cows and chickens for the calories to run it.

  24. I’m looking into buying a treadmill generator, and some cows and chickens for the calories to run it.

    Cut out the middleman, and get a treadmill generator that the cows and chickens can run themselves.

    1. I thought about that, but training animals is more difficult than just getting my wife to do it. I wouldn’t get on a treadmill in a million years.

  25. I was driving to the airport at 4am a couple weeks back. My route took me mostly along a boulevard whose businesses would all be open about 9am-5pm (or midnight if they were restaurants). All the signage was lit and many of the shops had their lights on….at 4 in the fucking morning when no one was using them. Our energy problems are sometimes the result of stupidity as much as anything.

  26. The Left has been whining about Reagan taking the Solar Panels off the White House for almost 30 years. Its funny the stuff the take offense to.

    1. The Left has been whining about Reagan taking the Solar Panels off the White House for almost 30 years. Its funny the stuff the take offense to.


    2. The Left has been whining about Reagan taking the Solar Panels off the White House everything for almost over 30 years. Its funny the stuff the how much they take offense to.

      1. Neither side has a monopoly on whining.

        1. We do too, you racist!

  27. Incredible. Who would have thought that in order to adopt new and innovative technologies, some money would need to be spent. Hey ron, have you looked at the continuous increasing cost of “Conventional” power over the years? It is only a matter of time before solar energy, wind and other alternative forms of energy are at equal costs to coal, gas, and oil, but in order to get there we need to continue to adopt these forms of clean/alternative energy. Now granted they won’t be our only source of energy, just a supliment, but they will help us reduce the amount of pollution from your conventional forms of energy.
    Get on the train, it’s a great ride and the air is a lot cleaner.

    1. Is that the diesel or coal powered train.

      1. Rainbow powered!

  28. Here is an interesting letter posted earlier this year regarding PV power for a residence near Albuquerque, NM, a location that is nearly ideal for PV power:

    Thursday, January 15, 2009
    Free Solar Power Is Hoax

    By James P. O’Loughlin
    Placitas Engineer

    The article N.M. Solar Energy Plan Expanded, about the state Public Regulation Commission’s promotion of grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) power generation states that homes and commercial establishments that invest in PV installations will have “free” electricity.

    I evaluated such an installation for our house using Public Service Company of New Mexico PV information on its Web site. I checked the results against more sophisticated resources and found the PNM results to be in good agreement.

    For my house, the required system has a DC rating of 4 kw to accommodate a match to our average energy consumption of 475 kw-h per month. The PNM Web site states that a PV system’s cost is about $10,000 per kw, or for our case about $40,000.

    This is consistent with the numerous PV system components and integrated packages available, plus the installation, fees, periodic inspections, maintenance, taxes, insurance and other incidentals. Based on a 20-year life and 6 percent cost of money, this comes to a monthly cost of $286.57. The monthly cost for the same amount of energy from PNM service is $42.75 ? where is the “free” electricity?

    There is an insurmountable fact of nature that forces photovoltaic to be several times more expensive than conventional power generation: The sun doesn’t shine for 24 hours a day. This requires that a PV generation installation must have a power rating that is about six times higher than a continuously running convention installation for the same energy output.

    At this time, PV panels account for around 50 percent of a system’s cost, or $5,000 per kilowatt. The other part of the PV system is based on mature technology, the cost of which cannot be reduced. The only way to reduce the PV power generation cost is to reduce the cost of the panels. Even if we take the most extreme, totally unrealistic case of reducing the PV panel cost to zero, the immutable factor of six in power rating still dominates and results in a cost of $143.29 for $42.75 worth of electricity.

    The clich? about investing in research and development to decrease the cost of panels and make PV power generation competitive is an unachievable myth that is fanatically pursued by the government and other groups having various and peculiar reasons.

    When reality is not acceptable, the government can fix it with political alchemy. Through the influence of pressure groups and lobbyists, state and federal governments decree that photovoltaic power generation must be implemented. To fix the inherently expensive PV power generation problem, governments provide tax credits, incentives and other forms of subsidy to cover up the excessive cost.

    This does not reduce the actual cost; it just transfers it to the general taxpayer or ratepayer.

    There are both state and federal incentives. PNM has a PRC approved plan that pays 13 cents a kilowatt-hour for grid tied PV power. Actually PNM doesn’t pay it. It is charged to rates paid by their regular customers to help subsidize PV power. Even with this money shuffling, those who buy into PV power installations still pay considerably more for electricity and will never recoup their investment cost. The rest of us get stuck for the subsidized difference.

    1. Arguments to be taken seriously should not shade all the numbers. $10,000 per kw? 20 years? Judging based on a 6% cost of money instead of return on investment? These all seem like “results-oriented” choices. The conclusion may be the same but it is at least a little fuzzier with alternative defensible numbers.

      Bulk good quality panels can be had these days including delivery for about $2500 per kw, and I expect this will not likely every go below $1000 per kw. Installation, inverters, etc. can be done for about $2500 per kw, a price that I would accept is unlikely to go down much. (Wylie – batteries are not necessary.) Some equipment wears out and the solar panels decrease in efficiency over time, but $5000 per kw is not an economically unattainable goal. The “Free Solar Power Is Hoax” letter acts like it is pie-in-the-sky and that $10,000 is normal. If you are paying over $7000 per kw right now for a 4kw system, you are being ripped off. I recently got 6kw for $34000 (not counting a huge rebate and tax credit that drops the effective price to $9000, thanks be to the taxpayers and other utility customers)

      For that cost, the system should produce about 7400 kwh/year AC, allowing for shading and inefficiency. A kwh in Texas ranges in cost from $0.09 to $0.19, making the return between 2% and 4% (on the unsubsidized $34000 number). That return is tax free – one is not taxed on money saved. That is obviously not such a great investment, but one can do worse. The taxpayer / utility subsidized installation is essentially a no-brainer at 7% to 15%.

      The DeSoto facility was $6000 per kw. Since that is more than what one can pay on the street for a house PV system, I figure there is some business math going on.

      On a personal scale, PV systems may soon end up being a reasonable investment even without the subsidies. On the scale of government policy, that depends on opportunity costs (e.g. putting money into nuclear energy) and externalities (e.g. global warming and the effect of sending cash to the middle east). I am not touching those issues, except to say A. no serious controversy within my area of science could be judged by ANYONE outside of my area of science, and B. when the arguments touch on my little area of scientific expertise, one side is routinely full of crap.

      1. Added note: For large-scale facilities, there is a paper in the literature (PROGRESS IN PHOTOVOLTAICS: RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS Prog. Photovolt: Res. Appl. 2008; 16:17?30) that puts the BOS + construction costs at only $1000 per kw, much lower than I thought. (God, DeSoto looks like a ripoff.) That means that if the panels go below $2000 per kw (and some places are putting the component chips near $1 per watt), then the price per kwh falls to about $0.11. Read the paper for the assumptions, some of which are arguably optimistic, and no, solar will never supply more that 10% of the energy need, but it seems silly to trash it, as some people do I think just because they feel nuclear is better. Probably, if one could factor out the political and politics-caused cost, but in reality it might be best to keep in some backup plans.

  29. So, if you got solar panels in 1977 they would be paid for by now.

    If you got solar panels in 1977 you would be enjoing free electricity.

    How again is burning Coal filtering it from the air and dumping it into our watershed better?

    1. Those panels from 1977 would be giving only a portion of the power they gave in 1977. And the panels weren’t as efficient back then.

      So, by 2009, your circa 1977 panels MIGHT be able to run a tv and some lights. Forget a microwave or a refrigerator or a vacuum.

      As pointed out earlier in the thread, the cells start losing output efficiency after only 5 years. And they’re pretty much useless after 30 years. Which just happens to be how long it takes to pay them off. Of course, you’ve been buying power for 15years at that point to cover the PV system’s degrading performance.

      Refining silicon to semiconductor purity is very energy intensive. The economics work out for microchips because they actually strive to minimize surface area in their designs. So you get lots more chips out of the same slice of silicon.

      PV panels require surface area to function as light collectors. Which means LOTS of silicon that needs purifying. I suppose we can just build more panels to power the refineries….

      Henry’s post made an important point that wasn’t very obvious: the panels only account for 50% the cost of a residential installation. His post mentions “mature technology” but neglects to mention what it is: the storage batteries.

      Batteries are pretty much as good as we can make them until there’s a revolution in nanotech. They wont get any cheaper or more economical than they are now. And the batteries are pretty much essential if you want to avoid buying power from the utility.

      Now, once we have cheap & efficient “panels” made of organic semiconductors printed onto roofing material, and mature flywheel energy storage solutions…..then solar might pay-off and give us that long sought Free Electricity.

  30. He CALLED you Ron, you idiot. He didn’t call you Paul. What a way to start an interview. I was really interested to hear your side, but your douchebaggery precedes you. Or did you throw back a few before the interview. Wow. Lame.

  31. Hey ronnie….I was looking forward to your dismemberment by Thom Hartmann today.
    Too bad you pussied out!

  32. Well, those are nice figures. But construction cost is only part of the economics of a power plant. Once the plant is built, there are ongoing maintenance and fuel costs. I suspect the maintenance cost of a photovoltaic plant is pretty darn minimal. And I guarantee you that the cost of solar “fuel” is a darn sight cheaper than any fossil fuel!

    Come back to us with some accurate reporting when you do the math on the overall cost comparison.

  33. As someone who mostly identifies with libertarians it is sad to see so many libertarians bashing and not understanding solar power.

    I understand the criticism from a basically spending other peoples money part, but the technology itself has a lot of merit.

    Currently it costs more to use solar, but investment into solar power will lower it. It will eventually fall below the current cost of coal power off the grid. Prices are currently in a good decline as it is, with promising technologies and manufacturing improvements right around the corner. This is something I follow as an R&D electrical engineer who has worked with renewable energy and as someone with a lot of passion for it.

    I don’t see why solar power isn’t more appealing to more libertarians. A home owner can have his own power source without being at the mercy of government and power plant bureaucrats. You would also be more insulated against societal issues that can cause power outages.

    Although if they wanted to spend money more effectively towards solar they would be better off offering vouchers to home owners for installing PV systems. Home installations seem to get much more bang for their buck.

  34. Fuck you asshole

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