Solar Energy Realities Not Understood by Some on Capitol Hill
At a recent meeting of Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL8) in his Florida district office with a few of his constituents from the Space Coast Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) and in a guest column by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) on May 4 in the Pensacola News Journal, it was expressed that fossil fuels are cheaper than wind and solar energy. The arguments are used to justify failures to embrace a legislative program to reverse climate change and global warming.
Both congressmen and their staffs had previously received explanations of the Carbon Fee and Dividend (CF&D) plan proposed by CCL. That plan calls for the federal government to collect a fee on the carbon content of coal, oil, and natural gas (fossil fuels) entering the nation’s economy. All proceeds (the dividend) from that fee would be distributed equally to the citizens of the U.S., in monthly payments to households. The proposal would not go to creating more government but would more than compensate the recipients for slight increases in their fuel and other costs of goods and services resulting from the imposition of the carbon fee.
The plan’s purpose is to send a market signal to energy investors, coaxing them to invest less in fossil fuel combustion and more in clean, renewable energy sources. This would reduce the quantities of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” (GHGs), like methane, that are being injected into the atmosphere.
Increased concentrations of these gases have been demonstrated to accelerate global warming and its many adverse consequences. Severe storms are becoming more numerous and are producing increased economic and human costs. There are many other such effects — harming humans and increasingly damaging the global ecosystem, our life-support system. The problem will continue growing if we do not stop injecting these gases into the atmosphere by greatly reducing fossil fuel combustion.
Congressman Posey objected to this plan, even though a very similar Carbon Dividend one has been proposed by the Republican Climate Leadership Council. One argument Posey made was something like this: Why should the U.S. switch to wind and solar if China continues to use the cheaper fossil fuels?
In a similar vein, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) published a guest column on May 4 in the Pensacola News Journal, part of the USA Today Network, in which he stated his belief that “…safe and responsible exploration [for fossil fuels]… will create good-paying jobs for workers, lower energy costs for families, and make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy.”
Similar objections to the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources, including threatened job losses, have been expressed by other members of Congress. Ryan Koronowski wrote on 28 April that “There are 180 climate deniers in Congress, and one in the White House.”
Nearly all seem to assume (without doing the math) that solar is more expensive than fossil fuel energy. Rubio and others even claim that renewable energy will employ fewer workers than fossil fuel production and use.
What are the facts?
We can compare the cost of different energy sources versus the energy delivered by them as follows. We add up all the costs to build and operate an electricity generating system over the lifetime of that system. Then we divide by the electrical energy delivered by that system over its lifetime. This results in a price in dollars divided by the quantity of electricity delivered, in Mega Watt Hours, summarized by the symbol: $/MWh. (A MWh is 1000 times larger than the kilowatt hour, kWh you’ll find on your monthly electrical bill.)
There are many ways to generate electricity from various fuels. They all have a range of costs, depending on how they are designed, built, and deployed. This makes a plot comparing their costs per MWh somewhat larger and more complex than we might like. Here’s what that chart looks like.
Shown are the ranges in costs to produce electrical energy in $/MWh for several kinds of solar energy systems — using photovoltaic cells, using other alternative technologies, using wind turbines, and burning fossil fuels with: diesel engines, natural gas electricity generators, and coal-fired power plants.
In the competitive range shown in yellow above, we see that utility scale PV arrays cost from $61 down to $36 per MWh of electricity generated, wind turbines beat this at their lower range going down to $14 per MWh, while the fossil fuels range from a high of $281 down to $48 per MWh of electricity generated. The best of the wind turbine systems beat the cost of natural gas fired power plants by a significant margin. It is clear that solar is not more expensive than fossil fuels, except for some of the relatively small rooftop photovoltaic systems. The best of these, however, are only slightly higher than the costs of natural gas and are competitive with coal. A renewable energy market report by Transparency Market Research forecasting 2016–2024 says this:
It is already a known fact that all renewable energies are cost-effective, environment-friendly, and clean. While many regions are engrossed with armed conflicts and geopolitical tensions, clean renewable energy can offer extra relief, i.e., energy security and independence. Considering the many benefits of renewable energy, emerging nations are concentrating more on using available sources of renewable energy.
As the security of energy is the need of the hour, many nations are taking efforts to minimize their reliability on fossil fuels. The availability, affordability, and accessibility of fossil fuels varies from geography to geography, which has propelled the use of renewable energy. At present, wind energy is the most used and most mature renewable energy, followed by solar energy. The global demand for renewable energy is increasing at a significant pace.
Below are some recent comparisons of jobs in different energy fields now (and in the future for wind). Clearly, energy conservation, wind, and solar industries employ far more people in the U.S. than do the fossil fuel industries. It is important to note that there is already a strong transition underway from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, stimulated by market forces alone.
The steadily dropping costs of wind and solar and the rising costs of fossil fuels — as exploration has to go farther offshore, deeper into the ground, and further below the sea floor — is stimulating energy investors to move their dollars more and more from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources. This makes clear that employment in the domestic energy sector will grow for energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy manufacturing, assembly, and operations, while for fossil fuels, both investments and employment will steadily drop.
The problem with this rosy picture is that the transition is just not going fast enough to both overcome the continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions and reverse that growth, bringing GHG concentrations back down to safe levels. We need some way to amp up the transition. That’s where the government comes in.
It is true that China, in 2007, was building almost two new coal-fired power plants per week. They built so many coal plants that they couldn’t even turn all of them on. (They even had enough idle capacity to end world energy poverty!) The result was increased smog and air pollution so bad as to be nearly asphyxiating the people of China.
In consequence, China embarked on a major push to manufacture solar PV arrays and wind turbines. It installed so much wind power that much of the new capacity had to remain idle while they struggled to expand their electrical grid to transport the power to the load centers. In March 2016, Andrew Follett wrote that “Government statistics show that 33.9 billion kilowatt-hours of wind-power, or about 15 percent of all Chinese wind power, was wasted in 2015 alone.” They also became the largest exporter of solar arrays in the world, also dominating the wind turbine market. Along the way, China renewable energy products began undercutting prices made elsewhere. To this day, most solar collectors and wind turbines installed in the U.S. are made in China. In January of this year, Zachary Sahan wrote: “Renewable energy is now the cheapest option, on average, for new electricity capacity around the world — in developed countries like the US as well as developing countries like India, China, Nigeria, and Mexico.”
China and the U.S., in Hangzou, China last November 2016, formally committed the world’s two largest economies to the Paris climate agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Both countries joined many more around the world in signing the Paris Climate Agreement and China is taking steps to make good on its promises, including a huge reduction in coal-fired power plant expansion and phasing out new ones in favor of RE. That process is being repeated around the world. This puts the U.S. in direct competition with China as the world races to transition from old dirty fossil fuel power plants to clean renewable energy ones. China has made it clear that if Donald Trump won’t allow the U.S. to lead on stopping climate change, China will.
If the U.S. misses this opportunity to expand its own design, development, and manufacturing of wind and solar equipment, it runs the risk of further yielding that global market to China and other rapidly developing countries, like India. One result would be to miss out on the dramatic growth in renewable energy which has begun around the world. In that case, the U.S. could miss a big opportunity to educate, train, and employ renewable energy workers in large numbers, here in the U.S. We would also lose our opportunity to replace China as the dominant exporter of renewable energy equipment and distribution grid components needed in the coming acceleerated expansion of renewable energy grids around the world and in the U.S.
U.S. adoption of some version of the CF&D program will include a border adjustment fee on fossil fuel imports as well as on products made with fossil fuels from countries which do not have carbon fees or taxes in place. Several nations have already adopted a carbon tax, in part to avoid border adjustment fees imposed by other countries. In doing so, these countries are already preparing their renewable energy markets for competition with the U.S. and China. This web site maps the places which have already adopted a carbon tax and those planning to do so.
Members of Congress (including my own Representative Posey and Senator Rubio) are urged to improve their climate change talking points to include the above facts. We must all realize that the transition away from fossil fuels to energy conservation and renewable energy is already underway and growing — though not yet fast enough. We can even go all the way without great difficulty to get 100% off of fossil fuels.
There are many economic, social, employment, and financial benefits to accelerating the transition. CCL’s CF&D plan offers a market-based, conservative approach to doing this, without growing the size of government, while stimulating jobs, right here in the United States. The jobs are clean and mostly do not require graduate degrees. They are difficult to export offshore. They are not easy to automate (except possibly in the manufacturing phase, but even there, it’s probably cheaper to make the components close to where they are to be installed and operated than to transport them between continents).
There are new, clean, factory jobs to be created in the U.S., jobs for warehouse workers to store the components, transportation jobs to move them to the job site, and assembler jobs to put the components together and get renewable energy (and energy storage) on the electrical grid. This can happen much more quickly than for fossil fueled facilities. Further, wind turbines and solar arrays can be distributed through and near population centers. Plus, they don’t produce nearly the environmental impact of large oil and gas power plants, so are friendlier to the environment and people.
To achieve this transition before it is too late to do so, we need a slight market-based stimulus, relatively short-lived (a few decades), to stop the CO2 concentration from continuing its rapid rise past the 2013 milestone of 400 ppm to way above the current 410 parts per million. (Scientists say that we can probably live well if we can get it back to 350 ppm.)
Note to Congress: Get with the renewable energy program. Your constituents will praise you for it!
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See Dr. McCluney’s related article at this link: wp.me/p2Z6ug-mF
Ross McCluney holds BA, MS, and PhD degrees in physics, has worked as an optical engineer at Eastman Kodak Company, an optical oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and as a Principal Research Scientist, at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center for 31 years. He writes for Medium.com and the nonprofit blog FutureOfHumanity.org. Abbreviated link to this article: goo.gl/xJ1ECZ