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."