Solar Power

Hillary's Solar Scheme Is Central Planning at its Worst

Why privilege solar over all the other technologies, including some that may not even be invented yet?


Port of San Diego/Flickr

In a YouTube video released over the weekend, the leading Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, announced that "on day one as president," she would set "two ambitious national goals that will test our capacities." Said Clinton, "First, I will ensure we hit a target of having more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of my first term." You don't even have to wait for "ambitious national goal" number two to slap your forehead and roll your eyes at this example of top-down central planning at its worst.

Clinton assumes that man-made climate change is a risk serious enough to try to mitigate, and that America should try to mitigate it by reducing its carbon emissions. These are big "ifs," but ones I will grant for argument's sake. Even granting those assumptions, there is a humongous logical leap to the conclusion that the appropriate policy response is setting a national target for the number of solar panels installed.

For one thing, it's a classic error of measuring inputs rather than outputs. If the goal is the reduction of dangerous emissions, why not set a goal for that, and support any energy method—solar, wind, algae, hydroelectric, nuclear, hydrofracturing—that gets America closer to that goal? Why privilege solar over all the other technologies, including some that may not even be invented yet?

Even if one wanted, for some inexplicable reason, to prioritize solar, setting a goal in terms of number of panels installed is silly. That measure means an inefficient solar panel that produces a small amount of energy is worth the same, for government counting purposes, as a high-efficiency panel that produces a large amount of energy. It makes no sense. It would be like setting goals for hydroelectric power production in terms of the number of dams built — making Niagara Falls or the Hoover Dam worth as much as the tiniest beaver-dam equivalent at some small stream. It'd be like setting goals for a retail company in terms of stores opened rather than in terms of revenue or profitability.

Think about how most successful commercial innovation happens in history. Products catch on because they offer a better value proposition to consumers than the existing technology. No president needed to set an "ambitious national goal" of having 100 million personal computers or smartphones or automobiles sold; businesses and individuals adopted the technology on their own because it helped them do things that they could not do before, or at a lower cost than before. If solar offered cheaper, more reliable electricity than existing technologies, people would be putting up the panels for themselves without any government pushes or ambitious national goals.

Truth is, the technology (aided by subsidies from the Chinese government) is getting there; it's not quite there yet, though. Installing lots of less-than-optimally efficient solar panels too quickly isn't going to do anyone any favors; it'll just create a problem of how to get rid of them as the technology improves.

Some people who know a lot about energy are skeptical about solar. Microsoft founder and energy investor Bill Gates said in a 2014 interview, "Solar is much, much harder than people think it is. When the sun shines, electricity is going to be worth zero, so all the money will be reserved for the guy who brings you power when there's no wind and no sun." In a 2011 interview, Gates said, "I think people deeply underestimate what a huge problem this day-night issue is if you're trying to design an energy system involving solar technology that's more than just a hobby. You know, the sun shines during the day, and people turn their air conditioners on during the day, so you can catch some of that peaking load, particularly if you get enough subsidies. It's cute, you know, it's nice. But the economics are so, so far from making sense." 

Investors and creditors have found that out the hard way; among the solar companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection during the Obama years are Satcon Technology Corp., Solyndra LLC, Evergreen Solar Inc., and Abound Solar.

Failure is part of free enterprise, of course. But where's the justice in taxing some scientist working on some other energy technology to subsidize the solar competition? If Clinton really wants to fight climate change or cut carbon emissions, there are plenty of ways to go about it. She could fund research and development for battery storage. She could set emissions goals and let utilities or states decide the cheapest and best ways to meet them. She could allow more hydrofracturing that replaces coal-fired plants with cleaner oil and natural gas. But counting solar panels? Come on, Clinton. Get serious.

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  1. I would be interested to dig into her doner list and see how many trace back to investors in Solar.

    Just sayin

    1. I’m more interested in her boner list than her doner list… Just HOW MANY boners does she GET from worshipping Gaia more Religiously Correctly than me & you, anyway?

  2. Answer to the subheader question; because the solar panel industry paid Hillary.

    Why else?

  3. At least Governor Cuomo’s centrally-planned solar scheme seems to be getting off the ground. Well, until it goes belly-up.

  4. Half a billion solar panels? Is she planning on generating energy from the sun, or from the biomass of all the dead birds?

    1. its the windmills that kill birds

  5. Dreamers are infinitely more attractive than naysayers.

  6. “She could fund research and development for battery storage. ”

    A strange suggestion from a Libertarian magazine. Especially since she is almost certain to do so anyway, and I wonder who was the last president who’s administration DIDN’T fund research on batteries.

    1. It’s strange to suggest that if the goal is to reduce emissions that one should do something that actually encourages that goal to be met as opposed to something that is easy to report?

      Like others have said this is likely to result in companies developing smaller solar panels. If the action that comes out of this is some sort of per panel subsidy. If you get $200 per panel why would you install two giant relatively efficient solar panels on someone’s roof when you can install 300 tiny inefficient panels.

      The federal government invented systems engineering, they’re terrible practitioners of it specifying the solution (more solpnls!) instead of the requirement (reduced emissions).

      1. “It’s strange to suggest that”

        It’s strange because government funded research means that scientists who would otherwise be working for the private sector on what the market demands, are to work for the government instead. That’s never been a popular choice in these pages. Till yesterday, it appears.

        “Like others have said this is likely to result in companies developing smaller solar panels.”

        Possible but I doubt it. It wouldn’t be my most immediate concern. As I mentioned, it’s almost a certainty that the next president, whoever he or she is. will continue the tradition of public funding of research on batteries. I asked how far back this tradition stretches, and I imagine it goes back at least until FDR, but I really don’t know.

  7. I predict 1 square centimeter solar panels in our future. Especially if the policy mechanism involves a per-unit subsidy.

    1. This will work. However, it’ll need a solar concentrator the size of Connecticut.

    2. I see you beat me to it. Like the per-unit subsidy too.

  8. “Come on, Clinton. Get serious.”

    Circuses are supposed to be serious?

  9. “individuals adopted the technology on their own because it helped them do things that they could not do before, or at a lower cost than before”
    Socialists don’t give a crappola about what “individuals” want or can afford, they want to do it themselves as a big government sanctioned project because it is only they who know what’s best for the environment or whatever.

  10. Solar power is just the adult Left’s version of the potato clock.

  11. Sorry, but “central planning at its worst” is millions of people starving, not Hillary going off on a crony capitalist scheme to funnel a mere $60 billion to her campaign donors.

  12. “First, I will ensure we hit a target of having more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of my first term.”

    I predict a whole lotta very tiny solar panels.

  13. “Why privilege solar over all the other technologies”

    The reason is simple, there is a Moore’s law for solar panels, every time you double the number of panels, you reduce the cost of panels by ~30%. It is the reason solar panel prices have fallen 75% in 5 years. (see spot price link below, and scroll down to 2010).

    If this is implemented, at the end of her first term, the cost of energy from solar, will be less than that of coal, if the manufacturers can keep up.…..dules.html

    1. That’s fine, in an unsubsidized world. In HillaryWorld they can only go low enough that they’ll be “free” to the homeowner. i.e. They’ll magically be for sale at the exact same price as the subsidy, which can never go away, or else sales will dry up overnight.

      There’s also the issue that solar panels don’t last forever. They degrade to the point of diminishing returns in 20-25 years. The batteries will have been changed out numerous times by then and if using lead acid batteries, which are the cheapest to use, will be quite nasty to deal with. Sure they can be recycled…using a carbon based infrastructure of recycling center and diesel powered 18 wheelers. The recycling smelters are also very dirty although better than smelting lead from scratch.

      The cells are also cut using a witches’ brew of solvents and heavy metals. Most of the cells we buy are made in China so these are most likely just dumped in a river somewhere.

      Finally, most houses, even if covered in solar panels, will probably still not have enough juice to supply its needs. So you need a yard to put more cells in. How is this supposed to work in a densely populated city, I don’t know.

    2. No, they won’t dumbass. Dipshits like you ignore the cost of fossil back ups when the sun don’t shine.

      So quit lying fuck nuts, until these cost are included in the overall cost you are a lying sack of shit cronyist,

  14. She’d have my vote for sure if she could find a way to harness the kinetic energy from Bill’s zipper.

  15. If only central committee could harness the power of flatulence we could tax and regulate farts.

  16. You don’t even have to wait for “ambitious national goal” number two to slap your forehead and roll your eyes at this example of top-down central planning at its worst.

    Unfortunately, that’s usually not the reaction of a typical American to a member of his/her own party saying this.

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  19. “No president needed to set an “ambitious national goal…”

    That’s true. Plenty of American companies were working on sending a man to the moon before that idiot Kennedy made it a goal. Because it’s so profitable and all.

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