Whenever President Barack Obama wants to make some point or other about his energy policy, he makes a beeline to latest set of solar panels for a photogenic visit. Yesterday, the president found himself wandering among the 1 million or so panels of the Copper Mountain Solar installation outside Boulder City, Nevada. In his remarks, the president accused opponents of subsidized solar power of wanting
…to dismiss the promise of solar power and wind power and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, they make jokes about it. One member of Congress who shall remain unnamed called these jobs "phony" – called them phony jobs. I mean, think about that mindset, that attitude that says because something is new, it must not be real. If these guys were around when Columbus set sail, they'd be charter members of the Flat Earth Society. (Laughter.) We were just talking about this – that a lack of imagination, a belief that you can't do something in a new way – that's not how we operate here in America. That's not who we are. That's not what we're about.
Yes, America has always been about subsidized electricity. In any case, let's add up once again what federal subsidies (in this case a 30 percent tax break) can conjure into existence and compare costs with a new natural gas-fired electric plant. As the president noted, the new 58-megawatt Copper Mountain facilty can generate enough power to supply 17,000 homes. How does he come by that number? Very roughly, one megawatt of installed capacity when operating can supply electricity for 1,000 homes. Since solar is intermittent, the usual estimate is that solar plants operate at 30 percent of maximum capacity. In this case, Copper Mountain would supply enough electricity for 17,000 homes.
The Electric Power Research Institute latest estimate for building a new 550 megawatt natural gas-fired electric plant operating at 80 percent capacity is $1.2 billion. Using the same form of calculation implied by the president (1 megawatt per 1,000 homes x 80 percent of 550 megawatts) suggests that such a plant could supply electricity to 440,000 homes.
Now let's scale up the Copper Mountain plant ten-fold for a rough comparison to a 580 megawatt plant. The current plant cost $140 million to build, so a ten-fold increase would (again roughly) be $1.4 billion. Not so much more than a natural gas plant; but then there's the 30 percent capacity factor to take into account. So to get the same amount of electricity generated means that a comparable solar plant would actually have to have maximum capacity of more than 1,800 megawatts. So at $141 million per 58 megwatts of capacity such a plant would cost roughly $4.4 billion to build. That's almost four times more expensive than a comparable natural gas plant would be.
But surely, the extra expense for solar will be made up in fuel cost savings, right? Recent calculations of the levelized costs of various forms of electric power generation technologies (including lifetime fuel costs) suggest not.
If opponents of renewable power subsidies are "flat earthers," what does that make proponents?