“Without these subsidies … ‘On-grid PV,’ would be virtually non-existent. It only exists because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.”
“Included in the list of failed solar companies is Solon of Germany whose corporate slogan was ‘Don’t Leave the Planet to the Stupid.’ Fortunately for taxpayers, it appears Solon will be leaving the planet.”
A recent Wall Street Journal article, Dark Times Fall on Solar Sector(December 27, 2011), surveyed the latest solar industry fallout, as well as overviewed the financial condition of the surviving companies.
But the article seems to mistakenly equate the fallout to viability as if better profits would mean sustainability. The industry is not viable, but this is unrelated to the recent fall-out. The industry was growing and profitable in the recent past and was equally non-viable then. The difference is that with profit-enabling government subsidies intact, many established U.S. and European manufacturers are now competing with China. And they cannot compete.
There is a measure of justice in this recent turn of events. The old adage “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” comes to mind. In this case, one might say, “the industry that lives by government intervention dies by government intervention.”
The U.S. solar industry has seen remarkable growth in the past six-to-eight years, principally on the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers who have been forced to shoulder a significant percent of the cost of these solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to make them appear financially viable as on-grid resources.
The solar industry has amassed a ridiculous collection of additive subsidies, which total upwards of 80 to 90% of the total lifecycle cost. They have lobbied every conceivable legislative body to garner special handouts for installing the systems and production subsidies (Net Metering) for operating the systems.
This industry is artificial. Without these subsidies this market segment called “On-grid PV” would be virtually non-existent. It exists only because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.
In fact, they did such a good job of creating an enormous demand, that it attracted the attention of manufacturers and governments around the world, governments whose only subsidy is perhaps favorable lending to those companies that wish to sell into this artificial marketplace.
Global Subsidies, Calls for Protectionism
So now those same solar companies, which lobbied so heavily to plunder the public coffers, are through some grand act of justice being forced out of the business by Chinese manufacturers, who can produce panels at much lower cost. This industry built on government intervention in the marketplace is now dying because of possible Chinese government intervention in the marketplace. I call that just deserts.
So what is the response of the U.S. solar industry? It’s mixed, but continues on the same self-serving path it has followed. Some panel manufacturers are trying to block solar imports from China, which leads me to believe they’re not really that concerned with green house gas emissions after all.
Solar installers are against the restrictions, because the cheaper panel prices are increasing the sales of PV systems and they’re as happy as ever to continue riding the subsidy gravy train. Both segments are guilty of participating in a massive plunder of public and private moneys.
It is almost comical watching manufacturers and installers fight over the import restriction policy. The manufactures want the restrictions so that they won’t have to compete against the low-cost panels from China, and the installers like the low prices so they have more business, thus showing little concern for the U.S. manufacturers who created the subsidies in the first place. Is there no honor among the plunderers?
The oversupply of panel production is the direct result of government subsidies for solar. The article, in part, credits the oil price boom for the investment surge, but solar is not a substitute for oil. Installing solar panels does not reduce our oil imports. Solar PV offsets electricity and only about 1% of our electricity is made from oil, so I can’t believe investors invested in solar in response to high oil prices, nor for the reason of climate concerns, since solar is a very expensive means of reducing GHG emissions.
Reality Check Needed
It is far more reasonable to assume that investors invested simply based on a belief that subsidies and mandates would continue for many years. The subsidies created an artificial demand, which those investing in the industry surely understood was unsustainable. But apparently they did not correctly foresee the competition.
And fortunately for the taxpayers, who were helpless against the massive lobbying efforts of the industry, the Chinese manufacturers have come to the rescue. So if we’re being forced to buy panels, at least we can buy less expensive ones.
The best possible outcome for the U.S. taxpayers at this point is:
1) those companies most responsible for the solar subsidies lose interest because of the competition, and
2) there is a widespread realization that our utility mandates are accomplishing little except supporting the Chinese solar panel manufacturing industry.
Hopefully, these two outcomes will result in a shuttering of the political forces sustaining the subsidies and the subsidies will finally end.
PV Grid Parity: Still Illusory
One other point worth noting about this article is that the cost of PV is finally down to about $1/watt, which is the price many in the industry claimed was the price needed for solar to reach grid parity without subsidies. Well, $1/watt is finally here and solar is still far from grid parity. The truth is even if China could sell panels to installers for 1¢/watt, the systems would still be too expensive. Even with free PV, the cost of installation, mounting structure, inverters, wiring, etc. make the systems financially unsustainable.
The article concludes with the statement that “as technology advances and costs drop, solar-panel makers can supply power without a need for heavy government subsidies.” This leaves the reader some hope that on-grid solar PV will wean the world off fossil fuels, but this is wishful thinking. There is no guarantee that the prices will ever reach the point of grid parity without subsidies.
PV would reach grid parity if the total installed cost plus the net present value (NPV) of the operations and maintenance cost were at or below about $1/watt. But given that the PV panels alone cost $1/watt, and the total system cost for utility scale PV arrays is still $3.75/watt not including the NPV of O&M costs, I don’t see on-grid PV as a rational bet. Unless of course, one gets to bet with other people’s money and can ignore the moral implications.
Perhaps it will someday be necessary to wean ourselves off fossil fuels for reasons of supply limits or environmental issues. If that happens, normal market forces will rebalance both the supply and demand of energy in logical and rational ways. Till then we’ll just have to suffer through yet another economic bubble created by government intervention in markets.
Will we never learn?
As a final note, included in the list of failed solar companies is Solon of Germany whose corporate slogan was “Don’t Leave the Planet to the Stupid.” Fortunately for taxpayers, it appears Solon will be leaving the planet.
David J. Bergeron is founder and president of SunDanzer of Tucson, Arizona, a leading provider of solar-powered refrigerators and freezers world-wide. He has worked in the refrigeration and aerospace industries for 21 years and holds key refrigeration patents used by his company.
Bergeron graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University cum laude in 1982 and from the University of Houston (Clear Lake) with a Masters in Finance in 1985.
To our friends in the solar industry.
This reminds me of the saying…
“A government big enough to supply you with everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have…”
Think never ending subsidies.
I am very much in agreement with the contentions in this article, however, I do still have a question about solar energy Per Household:
We recently moved into a house in the country. The landscape is virtually flat (just north of Lake Erie) and we are surrounded by farmland, hence a distant tree line. On top of that, our house is situated so that the back roof is in full afternoon sun for a period of at least 7 hours during the summer, perhaps 4 in the winter.
I’ve always thought that solar- depending on the arrangements we can make- would be viable on a per-household basis, if conditions and surroundings are right for it.
May I ask your opinion of this?
Very nice history, Mr. Bergeron. It mirrors the history of wind in the U.S. and every other fave government technology. While many in the PV industry say “with just-a-little-longer subsidies, we’ll soon reach grid parity” the fact is that WITH the subsidy they will never make it. Forty years of technology innovation has convinced me it’s time (well past) for some tough love.
Government programs are designed to fail from the get go. Then when, not if, they fail an even larger program is said to be the “solution”. The thing we forgot to ask is “What is the problem that is being solved?” The answer: “Growing the project without limit.”
If the original project were successful, there would be no point in continuing with the project. The facilities,the sub-programs, the sub-sub-programs, and the sub-sub-sub-programs would have to be eliminated. All the politicians, scientists, engineers, technicians, accountants, managers, lobbyists, ect. hanging on the project like barnacles would be out of a job. They might have to get a real job and actually earn their salaries for a change. THAT is the last thing they want to happen so they make sure it won’t by making sure the project never quite succeeds.
Ultimately for Government and almost any large monolithic organization, success is seen as a problem and failure as an opportunity for aggrandizement and pillage of the public tresury. Hence, everything possible is done to punish success and reward failure. So far it seems to be working, from their perspective, because government has grown out of control and is consuming an ever greater fraction of the remaining wealth and is destroying an even greater fraction of the ability to create wealth.
The purpose of a system is what it does.
Solar is often a good choice if one’s house is far from the electric grid and there is a good solar resource at that location. (fairly sunny weather and mostly clear sky views). For many, the decision comes down to the cost of extending the grid to the house. If connecting to the grid would cost the homeowner $100K, and they can install a ‘livable” solar system for $20-30K, they often choose the solar, even though this choice means living on much less energy.
Solar is about 5 times more expensive on a per kWh basis than grid power in most cases, but this is still affordable. Solar homeowners typically live on much less energy for this reason, and this is manageable without too much discomfort. These homeowners will spend a greater percent of the day managing home power, including being vigilant about turning off unused electrical loads, performing battery maintenance, and replacing a large expensive battery bank every 5 to 8 years.
For those on a reliable grid, solar does not make financial sense (from the perspective of the community). Recall the rebates and credits you receive are burdening your neighbors, just as their systems are burdening you and others. Solar is expensive energy and the industry needs to hide the cost to make sales.
It’s better for the economy and environment to spend less on energy rather than more. I don’t recommend installing solar if you are on the electric grid, just live like electricity was costing you 50 cents/kWh and save the money for better things.
[…] On-Grid Solar: An Industry in Plight (Government-dependence perils) – MasterResource […]
Very informative article!
You write about on-grid PV that:
” It exists only because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.”
I would add that the reason that government officials were open to such lobbying was that they wanted to appear to be “doing something” about climate change–and the on-grid PV lobbyists offered “something.” Without the the specter of alarming climate change, I doubt that the government would be much interested at all in meddling in the the on-grid PV market.
If climate change really isn’t that “alarming” (and there seem to be good indications that it isn’t), then the pressure to “do something” about it should be lessened, and the government interest in pursuing a solution will decrease–as will its propensity for making bad choices (like on-grid PV subsidies).
Thus, while there are those that argue that the science of climate change no longer matters, I strongly argue otherwise.
My country has just spent a trillion dollars on a pointless war in Iraq (not counting the loss of lives on both sides). Tensions are now escalating with Iran over sanctions and the Strait of Hormuz. How many more trillions do you think we should be willing to spend to continue to be global policemen in this fossil-fuel addicted world?
I’m perfectly happy to spend a few billion in subsidies for nascent wind and solar energy industries — just as the goal, oil and nuclear industries received massive (bigger) subsidies in their infant years. These are just infant industries, and I’m surprised so many people are trying to kill them.
Actually, in 2010, the wind industry got $5 billion in subsidies, and the solar industry got $1.1 billion (according to Alex Planes’ Motley Fool piece, “The real costs of alternative energy” January 4 2012). Coal, oil, gas and nuclear got $6.67 billion in subsidies that year. Well, they shouldn’t be getting any, but they have good lobbyists.
And the biofuel industry, which gets even bigger subsidies and is primarily a fop to Iowa farmers (and others), is actually the biggest crime here. Some studies show it takes a gallon of gas (in farm equipment and fertilizer) to make a gallon of biofuel. Duh. This is an inbred baby at best. But lets not throw out the baby with the bath water. Wind and solar have not only seen double digit growth every year for the past decade, but steady, relentless cost declines each year.
The thing they’ve suffered from most is highly fickle government incentives.
I appreciate your passion about energy. And I agree the Iraq war was, in part, related to the need to have a secure source of oil. And, other things being equal, I’d love to see the US be more energy independent.
But unfortunately solar and wind do not reduce our dependence on imported oil. Solar and wind are not a substitute for oil. Solar and wind reduce coal and natural gas use. We do not make electricity from oil (only about 1%).
But more counter intuitive is the issue that forcing solar and wind onto the grid will significantly drive up the price of power and discourage the use of electric vehicles, which can help reduce oil imports.
And yes all industry subsidies, which have no legitimate purpose, should end, including the bio-fuel production subsidies.
We have energy issues and they are best solved by experts in the field responding to real market forces. The government should simply tax negative externalities.
Government IS the major negative externality. All else pales to insignificance by comparison.
All government can really accomplish is keeping things from happening. Unfortunately, it is keeping the economy from growing, keeping our vast oil and coal reserves from being used, and doing it’s best to keep the future from happening. It’s only legitimate task is to protect the rights of the individuals by prohibiting the initiation of force and the commission of fraud. Those things we really do need stopped but the Government is too busy being the source of them.
I guessing you’ve read Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law.” I agree that Government is falling short on its primary duty, which is to protect the community from plunder (from within and without).
We went through the solar thermal subsidies in the late 70’s under President Carter. The political will for those subsidies was driven by the Arab oil embargo and the ‘gas shortage/energy crises’ which resulted from price controls.
I guess we needed a new “environmental crisis” to provide the opportunity for the solar lobby to regain strength.
It’s also interesting that those of us young and impressionable at the time of the 1970’s energy crisis are now at the stage in life where we can affect policy, and I think this has contributed to the strong public support for finding alternative energy supplies. I just wish more of this support was focused on legitimate solutions.
It is really bad that the government/industry cries wolf like this and misuses the public trust. I think we’d be unwise to ignore the implications of rising CO2 levels, but the misguided push for solar PV and its likely demise will make it very hard for the government to push again for real environmental reforms when needed.
Frederic Bastiat is one of many.
Thanks David. I’m just tired of reading the same old “I hate government” arguments lumped together with the whipping boy of Solyndra (recipient of a Bush era loan guarantee in a program that was, overall, quite successful), and (often) cost/kwh figures for solar that are years out of date juxtaposed against coal and gas electricity costs at source (~5-6 cents/kwh).
You say “Even with free PV, the cost of installation, mounting structure, inverters, wiring, etc. make the systems financially unsustainable.” It’s hard to see how you can support this argument. One problem we all face is wildly varying numbers for the levelized cost of electricity from grid-connected distributed solar (home and business). But if you take a high estimate (30 cents/kwh), and subtract the cost of the panels, your system now costs 15 cents/kwh (for permits, installation, inverter, etc.). At that price, a home owner would save money in states where utility rates are higher, and several states are in the category today.
Further, if you go to time-of-use metering, you get charged over 30 cents/kwh during peak hours in the day, and as low as 4 cents/kwh at night. By coincidence, the sun shines in the day, so if you have a rooftop system you pay little or nothing at the peak rate and only night-time off-peak rates.
A national shift to metering this way would make non-subsidized solar economically viable now, almost everywhere. We would see a massive boom in construction jobs, and the development of integrated rooftop solar systems (put them up when you need a new roof anyway, and so subtract almost all the labor costs from the cost of the solar system). Subsidies help the industry grow economies of scale that reduce both panel and installation costs, so they can be seen as a kick-start to an industry that will grow on its own steam (so to speak) in the near future. Personally, I think the government can help. However, I wish our subsidies and other incentives were massive and geared toward producing energy from ALL sources: nuclear, fossil and renewable (adjusting for negative externalities, as you say). Instead, we have this stupid conservative-liberal divide as if we have to pick between an all nuclear and fossil fuel future versus an all renewable future.
The future will be a combination of both, and our government policies should reflect and encourage this, especially to wean us off imported energy from unstable parts of the world.
Yes, it is easy to find rate equity if you include the cost of materials, construction, installation, base load backup when the sun doesn’t shine, artificial increase in cost of base load backup due to absurd restrictions on developing fossil fuel resources, taxes, add on charges, fees, permits, and payoff to politicians. When you include all the costs, PV only works in remote areas that cannot be reached by normal power distribution lines. Even then, it is a challenge to provide the kind of sustained power expected for any thing other than a slightly more than primitive mountain cabin. If you want to live that way, so be it. Just don’t force the rest of us to do so simply because you are afraid of the future.
OOPS. DON’T include the cost of …..
Take a look at the prior post:
I try to explain why utility scale PV is still about 4x too expensive to be viable. The problem is that PV is intermittent, so you still have to build the traditional plants to provide power when the sun isn’t shining.
So PV is actually competing against the marginal operating cost of these plants. And on that basis, it’s still very expensive.
I agree that the economics of individuals using PV to offset their 12 cent power appears better, but there is a flaw in that logic, which I plan to write about in an upcoming post. In summary, if everyone installed PV on their homes, the utility would have to amortize its fixed cost over fewer sold kWh, so the final economics are the same whether the PV system is utility owned or distributed on homes. But the smaller individual systems are typically more costly to install so the return is worse.
Thank you for the insightful article. I’d be interested in your views about storage. Do you see a way for PV + batteries to provide viable alternative to other base load power source?.
If not, which I suspect is the case – at least in a 3 to 5 year time frame, then this would be the best argument for solar thermal against PV. To the extent that combined with thermal storage, solar thermal can deliver a LCOE (slightly) above coal or gas LCOE (ca. $10 us cents today), it can expect a market, especially when power consumption picks up again.This remains an aggressive targe for most solar thermal companies but within reach in my estimate.
As you predicted, I agree that solar + batteries is still far too expensive to provide baseload power. IF solar PV had ‘free’ storage, it would then be only about twice too expensive to be viable without subsidies. And that would be great news and perhaps within reach of true economic viability within a decade or so, especially as you say “when power consumption picks up.” But today the storage technology is still cost prohibitive.
So I agree with your point, that solar thermal’s storage has key advantages over PV, but it does not completely solve the problem. Solar thermal can’t really handle the case of 3-4 cloudy days in a row which happens in many locations. So we still need some form of back-up. But in this case, solar thermal also has the advantage because it can use natural gas to boil the same working fluid driving the turbines, so the marginal cost to provide back-up seems like it should be low.
With this built-in back-up, solar thermal gets to compete with the LCOE of other generation, where PV (without storage) must compete with the marginal operating cost of the back-up plants.
So I think your point about solar thermal is very good. Unfortunately, many previously “approved” solar projects are abandoning solar thermal in favor of solar PV. I felt this was a mistake. I think the decision to switch to PV is mainly based on risk. PV is low risk, very expensive, but well understood. But neither are ready for large scale commercial deployment.
Here are the recent cost figures from a DOE/EIA published a report on the LCOE (summary here: http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/2009/05/12/levelized-cost-of-new-generating-technologies/)
The report shows the lowest cost/kWh as:
Solar PV: 16 cents (without subsidy)
Solar Thermal: 19 cents (without subsidy)
I’m more familiar with PV numbers and think the DOE number is correct for PV.
In a growing market, where there is the need for new generation, if solar thermal can reach 10 cents, I think it would be a strong contender. I hope the industry can reach that figure.
Thank you for your question and comment.
Thank you for the frank assessment, Mr. Bergeron!
Thanks to all for these great comments, and most of all to David Bergeron for his interest (off the clock) for informed energy policy. How often, after all, do you find the executive of a solar company telling his sector to ‘cool it’ on government dependence?
[…] 6 January 2012by William Yeatman on January 6, 2012in Blog, Cooler Heads Digest Tweet In the NewsOn Grid Solar: An Industry in Plight David Bergeron, Master Resource, 6 January 2012A Honda Civic Lesson Eric Peters, American […]
There are at least three US companies delivering PV panels at $1/watt profitably without government subsidy. Then we have all the Chinese manufacturers who will fall into line with this pricing. You can buy panels from them tofday at $1/watt. As l0ng as balance of system components and installation costs less than another $1.1/watt, we have capital cost parity with coal. In fact, I am working novel ways to make balance-of-system cost much less than $1/watt.
However – recurring cost is zero for PV. The sun shines free, unlike burning coal, which is about 4c/KwHr. So reality is, PV is an economic no-brainer and our energy problem is about to be over. There will be a PV-fueled economic boom, as the cost of everything that depends on energy will fall, and people that make the investment in PV, whether residential or industrial, will find they have more disposable income to spend on other things.
It’s too late to bd-mouth solar: It has happened – Government subsidies were useful to get the market off the ground and encourage innovation, and now the babay can breathe on its own.
I don’t think your position is credible and hope you will respond to my points of criticism.
I can’t tell if you are claiming installed cost is $2.1/W or if that is a condition of parity with coal. I see numbers around $3/W, but even if installed PV were $2.1/W that is too high for grid parity with coal or natural gas.
Can you reply with a verifiable source of data indicating $2.1/W installed cost? I buy panels now for less than $1/w, so I know that is the current price. I get those panels from Germany
Who are the 3 US companies? I assume First Solar is one. Who are the other 2?
I’d love to see our energy problem “over” but the industry is still supported by a 30% federal tax credit and utility mandates. Without these supports, on-grid solar would not be competitive and not exist to any significant extent.
You’re making a mistake by ignoring the capital cost of a PV installation. Amortizing this cost over the life of the PV system results in an electrical generation cost of about 15 cents/kWh. See DOE/EIA report on the LCOE summarized in the link below:
If this DOE study were changed to reflect an installed cost of $2.1/W, the cost of PV electricity would be about 10 cents. Assuming your figure of 4 cents for coal (it’s closer to 2.7 cents in Tucson) installed solar would still need to fall by 60% to be competitive.
I think if the installed cost could get to 70 cents/kWh, PV would be widely installed without mandates and subsidies.
But even if PV were 70 cents, we’d only be able to install enough to reduce coal consumption by about 1/3 since we will still have to burn coal (or use some other power source) at night and on cloudy days.
One way to test your position is to eliminate the utility mandates and 30% federal tax credit and see if the industry survives. I hear a lot of talk about grid parity, but no talk about eliminating the mandates and credits. You might let the solar lobby know they have reached grid parity and can stop the mandate now. Let me know what they say.
It’s fairly clear that the Renewable Energy Standards (RES) mandates are still critical to PV installations. Here is data I found at NREL and DOE:
………………….States With RES…..States W/O RES
Avg Installed MW………..66.1 …………….4.5
Median MW……………….6.5 …………….0.5
It appears that solar most promising project is floundering.
SAN DIEGO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–On behalf of Maricopa Solar, LLC, Heritage Global Partners will conduct a global webcast bulk auction of company assets, in partnership with Hilco Industrial and BidItUp, and in collaboration with Auction AZ. The approval of Debtor’s Motion to engage Heritage Global Partners is currently pending in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona. Following approval, the auction will be staged on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, beginning at 9 am MT via live global webcast at http://www.hgpauction.com and onsite at 8475 N. 75th Ave. in Peoria, AZ.
This bulk and piecemeal offering of Maricopa Solar will feature a complete 1.5 MW Solar Thermal Farm to include 60 Stirling Energy SunCatcher™ Solar Dish Engine Systems and related support equipment including Switchgear and telecom assets. Complete details and sale catalog can be found on http://www.hgpauction.com.
The Stirling solar generators are the most efficient and low maintenance versions of solar generators. They could have been used to produce hydrogen by a efficient thermochemical process being pioneered by Sandia Labs. this is a readily storable medium and could be used to manufacture other fuel types as a base resource. But as you can see the solar electric generator past just didn’t pan out.
So what can you expect from the CSP preferred alternative much less from convention PV production farms? As Chip Knappenberger noted:
” It exists only because the solar industry lobbied government officials to compel citizens to purchase this otherwise non-economic energy source.”
It grew out of the 70 oils crisis and the global warming crisis along with: it will fix peak oil and make us energy independent. Similar to those who claim more fiat bailouts will fix the recession- employment crisis, along with green energy jobs.
Unfortunately, too many people tend to think one dimensionally and are easily conned. If not for that and mass media hype, many bureaucrats and used car salesmen would be out of a job.
[…] production tax credit; accelerated depreciation, etc.). Solar executive David Bergeron has estimated that the as much as 90 percent of lifecycle solar costs are hidden, due to special government […]