A Time and Place For Solar

The Clinton Administration’s "Comprehensive Electricity Competition Plan" announced on March 25, 1998 proposes a Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require 5.5 percent of all electricity sales to include generation from "renewable" energy sources by 2010. One of the "green" energy sources included in this requirement is solar power.

But is solar power really as green as many believe? Some applications of solar do make sense, but not the ones the Clinton Administration is proposing.

Photovoltaics use solar cells– which are much like computer chips, but larger – to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Initially, they were developed to provide power to satellites. Then during the "energy crisis" of the late 1970’s, government bureaucrats and environmentalists looked to solar power to compete with oil and gas in electricity generation. Solar firms were heavily subsidized to centrally generate large amounts of power, but they remain unable to compete against conventional plants without government funding.

The United States Department of Energy has spent $5.1 billion (in 1996 dollars) since fiscal year 1978 on solar energy. The result? Solar power produced on a large scale and delivered to customers by way of the power grid contributes less than one-tenth of one percent of total U.S. power generation.

Solar power is costly for the individual consumer as well. Solar systems can be signigicantly more expensive than central power stations using a gas turbine. And what of the environmental advantages touted by solar supporters? In June of 1997, Clinton told the United Nations that, "capturing the sun’s warmth can help us to turn down the Earth’s temperature." But focusing on global warming concerns to the exclusion of other environmental considerations paints a skewed picture of solar. Solar farms may require up to 100 times more land space (often in pristine areas) than fossil fuel plants producing the same amount of energy according to a study by Robert Bradley for the Cato Institute. The sprawling farms conflict with typical environmentalist aesthetic values – and can disrupt species habitat.

Solar thermal panels on rooftops of homes that have easy access to the power grid are used to heat water. But they have also proved to be disappointing, failing to deliver the big savings or reliability buyers anticipated. Forbes magazine recently reported that an estimated 30 percent of homeowners who purchased rooftop solar panels have had them removed. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration has proposed the Million Solar Roofs Initiative. The program seeks to put these problematic solar energy systems on one million buildings by 2010 by offering tax credits for those willing to expose themselves to this technology.

Some solar applications make sense. Photovoltaic systems are economically sound options for remote locations where the cost of laying transmission lines would not be cost-effective. Freeway call boxes, cellular telephone relay sites, and monitoring devices for railroads are all sound and unsubsidized applications of solar technology. But these areas of the solar market are thriving in spite of the federal government’s interference.

In its Electricity Competition Plan, the administration admits that "retail competition itself has the potential to significantly increase renewable energy’s share of the electricity market, because it will allow environmentally-conscious consumers to support green energy technologies with their wallets."

Ultimately though, instead of allowing the market to develop naturally in this way, the administration declares that a mandatory amount of renewable energy use must be imposed by the federal government because of "the inherent uncertainty of the transition to competition." Perhaps the administration should spend more time worrying about the "inherent uncertainty" of renewables.

We must learn from subsidized solar failures and refrain from compounding the same mistakes in a deregulated electricity market. Renewable energy sources, like solar, can only be considered successful when chosen by the consumer, not forced upon energy customers.

Jessica Melugin was a CEI Research Assistant in Spring 1998.