Solar Power Luxury in Yosemite National Park—Naturally at Taxpayer Expense

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Yosemite solar panel luxury

I woke up to an NPR story this morning (that I can't find online0 which celebrated the formal dedication of a new photovoltaic solar power system in Yosemite Naitonal Park. This San Jose Mercury News story parallels what I recall about the enthusiastic comments by park representatives:

"We're strongly enthusiastic that the Park Service is setting such a public example for using solar power in such a visible area," said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, an advocacy group for the northern Yosemite region. "National parks aren't just a place to go and be awestruck by the natural beauty. They're also a place to interact and to take away lessons."

And what indeed might visitors learn? Although I thought I heard NPR say that the system cost $6 million, the Mercury News says the system cost $4.4 million in "stimulus" funds, while the Merced Sun-Star reports $5.8 million. In any case, the 672-kilowatt solar panel system will supply 12 percent of the electricity used by the park and is supposed to "save" the park $50,000 per year on its electric bills. Hmmm.

As it happens, the non-profit research arm of the electric power industry, the Electric Power Research Institute just released a fascinating report [download] looking at the levelized costs of eight different electric power generation technologies including solar photovoltaic. Levelized means that all capital, financing, construction, operational capacity, and fuel costs have been taken into account. The analysis looks at projected costs for the year 2015. The total capital costs for natural gas combined cycle generation is $1275 to $1375 per kilowatt. Total capital costs for solar photovoltaic is projected at $3,725 to $5,050 per kilowatt.

How does the Yosemite solar plant stack up? A rough idea comes from dividing up the plant's 672 kilowatts of capacity by the costs. If it's really just $4.4 million, the cost is $6,547 per kilowatt; and if the cost is $6 million, it's nearly $9,000 per kilowatt. 

But the solar panels will "save" the park $50,000 per year on it electricity bills, right? Another way to think about these "savings" is to consider what $4.4 million could yield at an 3 percent simple interest (around the current 10-year treasury yield). That comes to $132,000 per year. 

Somehow I doubt that the park's administrators intend for visitors "to take away lessons" about bad government "investments." 

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  1. If you’re going to write an article with so many first-person pronouns, at least sign the damned thing. Which one of you contributors listens to NPR???

    1. FofE: I have now confessed.

      1. I would have guessed it was yours, but for the lack of any disclosure about once owning a solar-powered calculator.

        1. FoE: Solar powered calculator — how did you know?

          1. I saw your genome. You were genetically predisposed to owning one.

            1. You’re on a roll.

              1. It will be a cold day in Canc?n before Bailey tangles with this guy again.

    2. The cat has an unneeded “but” in that first sentence, man.

      1. The “but” is metaphorical, man. It’s, like, a metaphor for how we liver our lives in the 2010s, man.

  2. 4.4million divided by $50,000 means it would take 88 years to pay for itself. Do solar panels even last that long?

    1. Nope. The lifetime of solar cells is from 20 to 30 years.

  3. Mr. O: No. The EPRI study gives them a book life of 20 years.

  4. Re: Mr. Obvious,

    Do solar panels even last that long [88 years]?

    At least they will not last long after people realize what a waste of money they have been, which could be….. in 2012, or if we’re unlucky, 2016.

  5. But the solar panels will “save” the park $50,000 per year on it electricity bills, right? Another way to think about these “savings” is to consider what $4.4 million could yield at an 3 percent simple interest (around the current 10-year treasury yield). That comes to $132,000 per year.

    But it’s only money! I mean, what is money compared to the cozy, warm and fuzzy feeling of having saved the planet? Huh? That’s priceless!

    Maybe MNG is right, and some decisions are irrational. Like really, really….

  6. I CRIED MYSELF TO SLEEP ON THE JUNGLE-JIMS OF LIFE.

    TOO SAD TO DIE, TOO DAD TO SIE.

    I KILLED A MAN WITH A FRENCH-FRY.

    STOP ME BEFORE I DO IT AGAIN.

    WILL A 3.69 GPA GET ME LAID?

    WILL A MAN TELL HIS WIFE TO SUCK HIS PUSSY?

    WILL THIS BE THE END OF THE GOVERNMENT’S CONTROL OVER OUR LINES OF PRECIOUS PORNO?

    I DON’T KNOW.

    I LISTENED TO BILLY CORGAN WHEN I WAS A STUPID TEENAGE BRAT WHO LOVED MUSIC.

    I LISTENED TO JONATHAN RICHMAN WHEN I WAS A COLLEGE AGE WHORE SEARCHING FOR MY NEXT SIN.

    GOODNESS DOES NOT ACHIEVE BLINDNESS.

    SING THE SONGS OF GAMERS AND TUMORS, FOR THEY ARE TRULY THE CHILDREN OF GOD.

    IN THIS I SPELL MY LAST OATH.

    I WILL NEVER LIE. LYING IS EVIL.

    STOP WITH THE MADNESS. BEGIN THE SADNESS. BULLSHIT FAKERS.

    NOW I MUST BEGIN PLAN 9…THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS…I MUST SAY.

    CRY THE COCKASIAN WOMAN.

    CRY THE HEXIDECAROON!

    CRY FOR THE COCKASIAN GIRL! FOR SHE, TOO, SINGS AMERICA!

  7. I woke up to an NPR story this morning […], but [sic] which celebrated the formal dedication of a new photovoltaic solar power system in Yosemite Naitonal Park.

    Well, no wonder – NPR celebrates all kind of crazy shit regardless of usefulness or good economics.

    By the way, the disjuntive proposition “but” is unnecessary in the sentence.

  8. The giant Arizona solar phallus will save us all…

  9. obviously the whole park system should be given to the koch’s for strip-mining, deforestation, fracking, & toxic waste disposal.

    1. we shoud watterbvord teh prk lololol

    2. Re: OO,

      [O]bviously the whole park system should be given to the koch’s for strip-mining, deforestation, fracking, & toxic waste disposal.

      I don’t understand – why only those choices? Can’t the Koch brothers use the land for recreational purposes like Yogi Bear hunting?

  10. Just a nitpick

    The analysis looks at projected costs for the year 2015. The total capital costs for natural gas combined cycle generation is $1275 to $1375 per kilowatt. Total capital costs for solar photovoltaic is projected at $3,725 to $5,050 per kilowatt.

    How does the Yosemite solar plant stack up? A rough idea comes from dividing up the plant’s 672 kilowatts of capacity by the costs. If it’s really just $4.4 million, the cost is $6,547 per kilowatt; and if the cost is $6 million, it’s nearly $9,000 per kilowatt.

    RB is not comparing apples to apples here. Sure he uses the “rough idea” hedge to let you know that his numbers are not precise, but this is sloppy even for him.

    1. But you’re agreeing that the main point is correct, this is a terrible waste of money and not even the best way to help the environment with that much money? That it’s just for show?

      1. Allow me to reply for NM:

        “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that if we used more efficient storage techniques for solar/wind/unicorn farts then we could come closer to reaching comparable costs with fossil fuels, so that by logic Solar is actually more efficient and better than fossil fuels.”

        1. Re: Tman,

          Hey, that’s unicorn piss, not unicorn farts.

          Unicorn piss has been shown to be 100 times more energetic than unobtainium. It’s the perfect solution to our made-up energy problems!

      2. John T.

        I am not agreeing with his main point as I haven’t looked into the project in any detail. I have no opinion about its utility as a demonstration project. But I do know that I am not putting much stock in Ron’s analysis of the issue.

        Tman –

        Nah. Not even close to anything I would say.

        1. You’re hilarious NM, I knew you wouldn’t agree with Ron except you used a different excuse this team.

          Captain Goal Post moves again!

          1. Tman,

            I have never used the “if we used more efficient storage techniques for solar/wind… we could come closer to reaching comparable costs with fossil fuels” gambit. You are confusing me with someone else.

            I didn’t say I agreed or disagreed with Ron. I said I don’t trust his analysis as he doesn’t do an apples to apples comparison. I actually haven’t formed an opinion on the project yet.

            Keep on truckin’

            1. Sorry NM, I was just trying to fill in for you based on your track record with this subject. I’ve been through these arguments before and you always seem to have a reason why this isn’t “apples to apples”. Usually it’s because of TEH EXTERNALITIES of fossil fuels, but sometimes you bring up the “well, if we could store the electricity from wind/solar/unicorn farts etc THEN it would be cheaper than Nukes or fossils.”

              I’m pretty damn sure you have an opinion on it since you already have stated it doesn’t pass your “apples to apples” test.

              1. Usually it’s because of TEH EXTERNALITIES of fossil fuels, but sometimes you bring up the “well, if we could store the electricity from wind/solar/unicorn farts etc THEN it would be cheaper than Nukes or fossils.”

                Really. Not an argument I’ve ever made. You have me confused with someone else.

                And…I don’t have an opinion on this project. Haven’t looked into it. But if you take Ron’s analysis as your starting point, you are a sucker.
                The “not apples to apples” thing is Ron’s numbers…in the article…not the technologies.

                1. So, from what I can find…the project is looking at levelized costs of about 13 cents per kilowatt hour. That is about double the levelized cost estimates for natural gas at 6 to 7 cents. But I am trying to image the similar capacity gas powered generation plant in the national park…hmmm…

                  1. Why put it in the park? I understand there has been a technological breakthrough allowing electricity to be transmitted through some kind of cabling.

                    1. RC – They are already on the grid. This project only supplies, iirc, 12% of their electricity. This seems to be primarily a demonstration project. Seems pretty pricey as such, but I believe the idea is to demonstrate how larger scale solar can be implemented in remoter areas.

    2. NM: Nitpick away — The $4.4 million figure is likely not “levelized,” especially not with regard to its capacity factor. For solar photovoltaic, EPRI estimates a 15 to 28 percent capacity factor. If that’s true the Yosemite facility is an even worse “investment.”

    3. The problem emerges on page 3-2 of the EPRI report. It states the current price of natural gas is $4.50 per MMBtu, with projected cost of $6.00 per MMBtu in ten years. It’s an open secret in the industry that current gas prices are far too low, and as a result none of the companies specializing in natural gas fracking are currently profitable. The general consensus is that to reach minimum necessary profitability gas prices need to double NOW, which will put the price at $9.00 per MMBtu. That’s fifty percent higher than the study projects the price in ten years will be.

      In short, the study assumes an exceedingly optimistic price for natural gas fuel.

      1. Re: Ben Wolf,

        It’s an open secret in the industry that current gas prices are far too low, and as a result none of the companies specializing in natural gas fracking are currently profitable.

        Would you have a link to back up this? Because it’s not an open secret (or a secret) that the idea that companies can operate unprofitably is ludicrous – they lose investors, funding and credit pretty fast. We’re not talking about restaurants kept alive with life savings out of pure love [yes, I watch Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant: Impossible]. These are companies with big CapEx.

        1. Numbers of natural gas rigs continue to fall, which means people are getting OUT of the game and back into oil.
          http://www.indenvertimes.com/n…..-oil-rigs/

          Keep in mind lots of money went into mortgages too, and look how that went. Large numbers of people can behave irrationally, particularly when the gas industry is lying.
          http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/us/26gas.html

          The needed price for profitability I posed is the middle of the range. Some think the price only needs to rise to $7, others think $11.

  11. Solar panels are only cost-effective for off-grid implementations where it just plain costs too much to run wires from the grid.

    1. Re: Kinnath,

      Solar panels are only cost-effective for off-grid implementations where it just plain costs too much to run wires from the grid.

      This.

      As an off-the-grid solution, photovoltaics compete very well with running lines over forests and lakes. But for urban sites and areas which can be on-the-grid easily, it makes less economic sense; it may make aesthetic sense for the person that simply wants to be off-the-grid despite other choices, but he cannot argue on the economics.

      1. Passive solar engineering is highly effective at reducing the carbon footprint of a home. I live in Iowa and have a south-facing exposure with huge windows. It is not uncommon in January that my heating system won’t kick in from 9 am till 4 or 5 pm even when the high temperature hovers in single digits. I just need a little sunshine to keep my house warm.

        But solar electric panels are a disaster for urban or even rural installations when the electric grid is there. The manufacture of solar panels is seriously bad for the environment. They are about as un-green a technology as you can find.

        1. Indeed. There are very few environments where good design can’t reduce your energy costs by 40 or 50 percent. Most of those design modifications take advantage of passive solar. Yep…even here in the cloud covered NW.

          1. It irks me to see so many new houses built with NO capacity for passive solar. I live at 8000ft and when I come home in the afternoon in winter my house is often 80F when it is in the 40’s outside. My cousin in Wisconsin built a passive solar house that kept his home so warm (with no supplemental heating) in winter that he often had to open a window during the day.

            … Hobbit

  12. I would think Yosemite has pretty poor ensolation, making it a stupid place to put any kind of solar facility.

  13. The total capital costs for natural gas combined cycle generation is $1275 to $1375 per kilowatt. Total capital costs for solar photovoltaic is projected at $3,725 to $5,050 per kilowatt.

    And what are the capital costs/kW for liberal douchebags chained to stationary bicycles connected to 3-phase generators?

    1. Chained?! They should be PROUD to help power the Glorious American People’s Future! Hell, feed them corn that would otherwise go to bioethanol and we’d have the greenest energy in the world!

  14. The “but” is still there…

  15. RB: Thanks for bringing this to our attention. It’s good ammo the next time some wind-o-phile starts pounding the drum about how green windmills are.

    Of course, since their minds are made up, it won’t help, but at least it’s a moral victory at least for the power of analytical thinking.

    1. Wind is a different story. In places like western Iowa where the wind blows non-stop and no one bitches about destroying the scenery, they can be not-so-bad economically.

      I have seriously considered wind as a back up for when the grid goes down (which seems to happen frequently at my rural home). The problem isn’t the cost of the small-scale wind generator, it’s the cost of batteries and invertors.

      1. Wind sucks from a quality of power perspective. It introduces undesirable phase angles and oscillations into the power grid. Typically windpower generators are coupled with conventional generators which then smooth out hte signal or shift the phase angle.

        However, these conventional generators are operating at low loads with a great deal of variation leading to crummy fuel efficiency and heavy wear and tear.

        The end result of using wind-power, lower quality electricity at a more expensive price with a small reduction in green-house gasses.

        Win the Future Indeed

        1. Wind-generation sucks. But, massive scale photovoltic farms are worst possible way to produce electricity.

          1. Wind *does* make good sense if you’re a couple miles from a line and using it to run up a battery for a few basic devices, but as the table shows, it’s only there about 20% of the time… and even the greenies want to be able to listen to NPR more than just when the wind blows.

            1. Even though the grid comes right up to my front door, it doesn’t always provide electrons to my house 😉

              I have a natural gas powered back up generator to keep the essential systems in the house (like heat and the sump pump) running when the grid goes down.

              That’s OK when the grid goes out for 8 hours (like it did a week ago), but not so good when the grid goes out for 7 days (like it did for my friend).

              1. Kinnath @ 5:19:

                I understand your point. Since we have our own well in an area where “the grid” is more of “a tree” (if you saw off the branch further down your ass has zero support) many of the neighbors have generators; I just stockpile water and canned goods, and have a bucket to get water from a stream for Mr. Crapper’s sanitation device.

                Hey, it works.

      2. Love comments like this “yeah, but wind works in ____ where it blows ALL the time!”

        No. It doesn’t. If it blew “ALL the time!”, it wouldn’t have a 40% capacity factor on the high side. Even that is mightily generous in the vast majority of populated areas in the US. There’s a reason TX requires backup fossil generation for all new wind generation, even in the west, where the wind blows “ALL the time!”

        1. they can be not-so-bad economically.

          I don’t read that as a particularly enthusiastic endorsement of wind.

          The real problem in many locations (like Iowa) is the wind blows too hard for wind generation. The generators spend alot of time with the clutch disengaged to prevent wind from destroying the generator.

          1. Lordsy how I laugh when I drive by the local wind turbine (please!!!!! it’s a “wind turbine” not a “windmill”) and see it parked because the breeze is too strong.

          2. Did I fail to mention that a parallel system 1/4 mile away is *permanently* parked because it was discovered *after* it was installed how noisy the durn things can be, and the neighbors are just a wee bit less enthralled now that they have some real life exposure?

      3. But if there are too many wind turbines, they will capture all of the wind, and the Earth will stop rotating.

  16. I’m saying that if we used more efficient storage techniques for solar/wind/unicorn farts..

  17. I said this yesterday. Leftist turn everything they touch into a vehicle for leftist politics. They can’t be bothered to run the park and help people access one of the most amazing places on earth. Nope, not leftist. They have to turn it into lefttwing political propaganda and ruin it. fucking bastards.

  18. Yawn…

    We’ve been wasting money (and crowing about it) at the county level here in sunny Minnesota for some time now.

    Of course, there are a few grumpy county commissioners who don’t seem to grasp the wonderfulness of solar yet.

    They think that a project that won’t begin saving money until 2070 is a boondoggle.

    1. Solar in Minnisota. I love it. Lets do Solar in a place where the days are wildly short half of the year and it rains a lot of the time during the rest of the year. It is about like depending on hydro electric in the Sahaara. It really is just a religion for these people.

      1. MinnEsota, damn it.

      2. Dimwits in my town just agreed to put 17 acres (!) of photovoltaic on top the the dump (that the People’s Repvblic of Massachvsetts made us close for some reason like it’s better to burn it than mine it).

      3. The company I work for – a plastic molder – has gotten on the er, green bandwagon. We have solar panels on top of one of our plants, which are covered in snow (until someone goes up to brush them off) or pretty worthless half the time since days are short here up north during the winter.

        We also have a few smaller test wind turbines which are a boondoggle in themselves. 10k each to get a 20% reduction in the average homes electricity bill.

  19. Typical government “investment”. It will pay for itself in just a century!

  20. You idiots need to get someone on staff who understands energy before you try to write about it. Comparing the capital costs of constructing a plant is useless unless you also take into account the costs of generation over the lifetime of the plant. How much do you think the owners of solar power plants spend on fuel costs over the life of the plant? At least the guy who brought up levelized costs knew you were using the wrong numbers for comparison, not that he knows any more about energy than you do.

    1. Feel free to read the report Bailey attached from EPRI- fuel costs included, lifetime costs are 1/3-1/9th or so for PV vs an NGCT. You do realize that fuel costs are so insignificant vs the marginal price of generation that all but the most inefficient CT and oil burners run completely without regard to spot prices in most markets, right?

  21. “National parks aren’t just a place to go and be awestruck by the natural beauty. They’re also a place to interact and to take away lessons.”

    Yes, take away the lesson that government can waste money anywhere it tries to.

  22. I woke up to an NPR story this morning (that I can’t find online0

    Uh, you know what? Put back the “but” because it looks better than what’s now.

    I’m sorry I brought it up.

  23. the 672-kilowatt solar panel system will supply 12 percent of the electricity used by the park

    What the hell is a park using 6MW for?

    I was under the impression that trees, rivers, and mountains did not consume electricity.

    1. Re: wylie,

      I was under the impression that trees, rivers, and mountains did not consume electricity.

      It’s to power up the hidden casino.

  24. The lesson to take away is if somebody wants to buy you free solar panels LET THEM..

  25. I am installing a 600watt solar electric system on our weekend cabin, which is 300m away from the nearest public transformer. It would cost about $1k dollars to connect (and pay the monthly bills).

    Or, $3k for this system. And we will pay no bills for the next 20-30 years. Of course the battery replacement costs will be about $50/year.

  26. Go ask PG&E why they support systems like this. They’ll tell you: if California doesn’t find ways to produce decentralized electricity, PG&E is facing billions of dollars of investment in the grid to avoid rolling brown-outs. But you won’t see those costs, or many other environmental costs of fossil fuels and benefits of solar energy, factored into these back-of-the-cocktail-knapkin analyses.

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