Solar Energy: It's Not Easy Being Green; AP Fails, As Press Usually Does, to Note Costs

PVpanels0409Gosh, I thought you could just throw up a few solar panels, plug into the grid, and our energy problems would be solved in an environmentally perfect way. (/sarc)

Of course not.

Early this morning, Rita Beamish of the Associated Press reported that solar panel projects are running into problems with water availability and efforts to protect endangered species. But, as usual for a report on energy production, she fails to tell us how much the energy produced from such installations, if they ever go active, would cost.

Here are a few selected paragraphs from Beamish's report:

Solar finds it hard to squeeze water from desert

A westward dash to power electricity-hungry cities by cashing in on the desert's most abundant resource - sunshine - is clashing with efforts to protect the tiny pupfish and desert tortoise and stinginess over the region's rarest resource: water.

Water is the cooling agent for what traditionally has been the most cost-efficient type of large-scale solar plants. To some solar companies answering Washington's push for renewable energy on vast government lands, it's also an environmental thorn. The unusual collision pits natural resources protections against President Barack Obama's plans to produce more environmentally friendly energy.

..... The solar hopefuls are encountering overtaxed aquifers and a legendary legacy of Western water wars and legal and regulatory scuffles. Some are moving to more costly air-cooled technology - which uses 90 percent less water - for solar plants that will employ miles of sun-reflecting mirrors across the Western deserts.

..... The National Park Service is worried about environmental consequences of solar proposals on government lands that are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It says it supports the solar push but is warning against water drawdowns, especially in southern Nevada. In the Amargosa Valley, the endangered, electric-blue pupfish lives in a hot water, aquifer-fed limestone cavern called Devil's Hole.

..... Companies are wrestling with routes for long-distance transmission lines and habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. They also are worried about a proposal being developed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a Mojave national monument, which could put up to 600,000 acres off-limits alongside already protected park and military lands. It could affect at least 14 solar and five wind energy proposals.

Nowhere in any of this does Beamish give us information about how much energy installations such as these might produce, or what the cost of producing that energy would be.

Solar energy advocates tend to downplay, and the press tends to ignore, the massive amounts of land their facilities would demand, and the resources needed to keep solar panels operating efficiently.

Ultimately, these and other factors cause the cost of generating energy via solar to be far higher than that involving fossil fuels. One analysis (imperfect, to be sure; if anyone has a better one, let me know) shows that solar is "5-20 times more expensive than the cheapest source of conventional electricity generation, although .... (it) may only be 3-5 times the electricity tariff that utility customers pay."

As to getting solar to be "economically viable," the author of this post cuts to the chase in its final paragraph:

The bottom line is that despite the lower PV panel costs; we are still not at parity with hydrocarbon fuels such as coal and oil. Carbon based taxing or alternative energy stimulus and more investment into alternative energy is required to improve the economics of solar and wind.

So if the economics don't work, governments are going to have to force them to work through taxation. At least the author is honest about it. It would be nice if the establishment press would shine a bit of light on comparative costs every once in a while.

Cross-posted at

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.