“Solar Energy’s Cloudy Future”
The future of renewables is bright, but not necessarily rosyBy Bart Taylor
Wide-eyed optimism over the promise of renewable energy is giving way to the more sober reality that the new energy economy will look a lot like the old. Coal, natural gas and nuclear will continue to be preeminent while renewables slowly gain market share. An emissions-free, renewable-dominated grid forecast by some simply isn’t in the cards near-term.
Instead, while there’s consensus the future is certainly bright for ‘new’ energy, the immediate view isn’t necessarily rosy.
That's the assessment of the Robert Glennon, the University of Arizona’s Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy. I met Glennon at the Modern Energy Investor Forumin Denver this past September. I consider him a thought-leader in water and energy issues in the West.
Glennon writes that “Solar remains an emerging technology not yet price competitive with fossil fuels” and goes on to paint a gloomy picture for solar as a utility-scale option, citing four formidable obstacles:
- large land and water requirements for utility-scale solar technologies
- the “arduous” permitting process required for proposed sited on public lands
- disincentives created by a preference for agriculture
- objections from politicians and environmentalists toward siting utility-scale projects
In many ways, solar is the poster-child for growth in the renewable and clean-tech sectors. Photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays dot the landscape in residential and larger commercial applications. Concentrated solar power, or CSP, a second utility-scale option, provides the additional upside of enabling solar-generated power to be sent to the grid after the sun has set – the “intermittency” issue that remains a liability for PV systems.
Solar’s impact is growing. Glennon notes by the end of 2008, “89 large-scale solar thermal or photovoltaic facilities were operational in the United States producing approximately 864 thousand megawatt hours of electricity. By the end of 2010 the Obama administration expects another 38 facilities will be running, adding another 613 megawatts of clean, renewable energy to the nation’s electrical power supply…”
Solar’s also been a job-growth engine. The number of companies in the area of PV solutions alone “grew by 347 percent from 1999 to 2008 while providing job increases of nearly 560 percent...In a single year, from 2007 to 2008, the number of companies involved with PV grew from 136 to 206, a growth of more than 50 percent.”
But for Glennon, growth in the segment also provides insight into solar’s challenge to fulfill its promise.
Despite its growth, solar’s collective impact on the nation’s’ power grid is nominal, “in 2008…the “big four” of electricity production – coal, natural gas, nuclear, and conventional hydro-power – accounted for 3,929,821 thousand megawatt hours, or more than 95 percent...of the 4.1 thousand megawatt hours of power generated in the United States…In contrast CSP and PV systems combined accounted for only 864 thousand megawatt hours – less than .02 percent of America’s electricity needs. Thus, just to replace the amount of megawatt hours of electricity currently generated by coal plants, we would need 2,300 times more power generated by solar plants.”
From here, Glennon lays out the considerable hurdles solar faces in achieving anything close to this level of growth.
Siting utility-scale solar installations is at the top of the list. The dialogue relating to identifying suitable locations is charged by a contentious mix of permitting challenges, water concerns, the paradoxical objections of environmentalists, stiff political opposition, and, simply, of scale: “The National Energy Policy Development Group calculated that the country will need 393,000 megawatts of new electrical power capacity by 2020. That amount of power would require that we build one power plan per week over the next 25 years. Yet, since 2007, Georgia, Idaho, Arizona, and Montana have denied permits for new power plants because there was not enough water to run them.”
Glennon's focus is on the West, the epicenter of solar in the U.S., and here, water looms in every development discussion. He takes considerable time to explain the water requirements of PV and CSP applications. The upshot is that until more water-efficient plants come online – and Glennon cites the promise of a new parabolic-lens solution from Stirling Energy Systems – utility-scale plants will get pushback from entities across the policy spectrum because of water.
In addition to water, Gannon explores the two formidable land-use issues challenging growth: the permitting of solar installations and the contentious debate over transmission lines – grid development.
It’s here that the debate about the growth of solar power becomes strange – amusing, perhaps, to proponents of traditional power; maddening, to be sure, to renewable proponents who watch a movement become its own worst enemy. In the case of siting installations and supporting transmission lines, the environmental community has become a vocal opponent of the development of carbon-free electricity.
Gannon quotes California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger, who summed up the paradox in a speech at Yale University in 2008: “They say we want renewable energy, but we don’t you to put anywhere. I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put them.” NIMBY (not in my back yard) has been replaced, Gannon informs us, by BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) in the discussion about energy development. He cites several other examples across the region where environmental or political objections from erstwhile supporters are slowing or stopping solar expansion on public lands. As he points out, the "realization of solar’s water needs, transmission line access, and land requirements are generating pushback from both sides of the political aisle.”
Gannon also explores the sometimes conflicting incentive and subsidy structure that favors agriculture, for one, over energy development, and suggests that developers must turn their attention to private and tribal lands where permitting is less problematic. “Simply put: if solar companies lack water, land, and money, then solar will never become more than a marginal player on the energy stage.”
Strong words, but in the end Robert Gannon provides the solar industry what it needs at this important juncture: a concise summary of the challenges facing this uber-important energy segment. Diversifying our power grid is a national security imperative.But Gannon’s contribution will fully resonate only if policy-makers muster the will to act.
About Bart Taylor
Bart Taylor is the publisher of Planet-Profit Report.