The Cost of Solar

I had wanted to dig into the costs of a Florida solar facility that Obama recently visited.  Fortunately Ronald Bailey does it for us:

Now let's do a rough calculation of the costs of DeSoto Solar versus conventional power sources. According to the Electric Power Research Insitute, a modern 1,000 megawatt coal plant without carbon capture technology would cost about $2.8 billion to build. Adding carbon capture would boost the cost to as much as $4.7 billion.

The 25 megawatt DeSoto facility cost $150 million. Scaling it up to 1,000 megawatts would cost $6 billion. But coal power plants operate 90 percent of the time snd solar only 30 percent, so in order to get the equivalent amount of electricity out of solar plant would mean tripling the capital cost for a total of about $18 billion. In other words, building a solar power plant costs between 4- and 6-times more than conventional, or even carbon capture, power. Even worse, a scaled up DeSoto-style plant costs 18-times more than a natural gas plant.


  1. danny:

    There is a little bit of a misconception here. By going solar, you are in effect trading variable costs for fixed costs. You no longer have any fuel cost!

    Furthermore, the amortization of the capital cost should be considered.

    Solar is still a big fat loser right now...but its not as bad as this analysis portrays it.

  2. Chris K.:

    Nu-q-ler to quote the second worst president in history.

  3. Dan:

    I agree that nuclear is a great idea, Chris K. Definitely need more nuclear plants, although from what I've read, uranium supplies may have already peaked.

    I also agree with danny on the fuel costs. Coal is great (aside from the pollution and the fact that it's not a renewable resource). Someday, we won't be able to use coal, so figuring out how to use solar makes sense to me.

  4. Chris K.:

    Uranium production has not peaked. It has become cost prohibitive to mine more with current environmental regulations.

  5. Chris:

    Even if you triple the size of the solar plant, you still can't operate 90% of the time. IIRC, solar only operates during daylight hours.

  6. Mary:

    While solar has "no fuel costs", the power created is intermittent. So, either vast power storage must be created (batteries) or an alternate power source must be used.

    Wind power has the same problem.

    On sailboats these issues become immediate and real. People who live on their sailboats full time, cruising the world constantly have to be aware of their power status. Many have a combination of solar, wind and fuel generated power, stored in batteries onboard. But hand in hand with the multiple power sources is a constant focus on reducing power consumption. There is a conscious, deliberate trade off between the ability to generate power and need to consume it. In a 300-400sq ft living space (the size of most cruising sailboats), this is, indeed, a "lifeboat" (sorry) situation.

    Luckily, sailors are creative, innovative folks who have self-selected this lifestyle CHOICE. I would not force this choice on anyone; most would not get the trade off of world travel for drastically ramping down power needs, just lower standards of living.

  7. anon:

    concur with fuel cost comment, but add that you must also include the operating manpower/maint costs.

    There's lots of PV cells/mirrors/(whatever depending on tech) to clean at a solar plant.

    I'm buying stock in Windex!

  8. anon:

    Also, I just noticed that Desoto is a PV-based plant.

    What's the expected useful lifetime of a solar cell, assuming no hailstorms, etc.?

    Does performance tail off over time or drop like a rock after X years?

  9. Fred from Canuckistan . . .:

    The person who solves that pesky "Night Problem" is in line to make a lot of money.

  10. dr kill:

    I read a semi-scientific (even I could do the math) article this week that showed how solar, tidal, wind and hydro can not produce the amount of electricity the Greenies insist it will because of land requirements alone.

    Did anyone else see it? I didn't save it and wish I had.

  11. Fred Z:

    Space Power!

    Set up a solar receptor field in the desert somewhere, near Las Vegas is good, plenty of access to beer, pizza, hookers and other delights.

    Get those lazy lout civil servants at NASA to send up to geosynchronous orbit a huge foil backed Mylar film mirror and deploy it. Wiki tells me there are roughly 1350 watts per sq meter up there. Make the mylar mirror say 200m across, a mere 2 football fields. The mylar weighs about 36,000 pounds, well within the shuttle's capacity. The film will reflect about 42 megawatts worth of energy.

    Now, focus it carefully so as to create a fiery concentration of of those 42 Megawatts of solar fury at the earths surface.

    Focus it on Congress, kill them all, then focus it on the solar field and generate some electricity.

    Open a beer and unlax, all problems solved.

  12. DaveH:

    Uranium -- we have about 500 years worth in the ground in the USA. The enviros are preventing us from mining it so we import from Africa and Canada.

    Thorium is the one to watch -- incredibly plentiful and there are safe reactor designs running right now. France and Japan.

    And then there are these people -

    They have working fusion, it just needs more energy to run than it yields. Scaling up will alter the landscape and they just got a nice grant from the US Navy to do so. The upper echelons of the Navy are not populated by idiots...

  13. Lloyd Burt:

    Ah the illusion of "free" energy. Oil, coal and natural gas are completely free. Not one bit of human effort went into their manufacture. They are simply laying there, ready for anyone to grab them JUST LIKE THE SUNLIGHT. But then you have do dig out the coal, drill to the natural gas/oil...or construct expensive arrays of mirrors, solar cells or wind turbines over truly VAST tracts of land to harvest that "free" energy. Solar and coal start out free, harvesting solar costs more...therefore solar costs more.

    I'll make this simple. As far as solar is concerned there is only one practical solution...and it works just great. Build a solar-thermal plant and since all the hardware is already dedicated to converting heat into electricity...add a freaking oil or natural gas burner to it. Base load problem...SOLVED. Backup power problem...SOLVED. Conserving resources...YES. Getting peak loads from renewables (and therefore saving even more of your resources)...YES!

    On solar-pv: Plain old solar-photovoltaic pretty close to a criminally stupid use of resources. If you want to do it, fine...its your money. Better idea though...since efficiency goes up with light concentration why not build a trough shaped collector that tracks the sun across only one axis and get ALL the benefits of solar-PV at near solar-thermal costs (better for small scale installtions). ALSO...many large facilities use adsorption air conditioners already (and duh the array can be used for heating as well), they could be taking the coolant from the concentrated PV array and using it to provide MOST of the input energy for their HVAC systems.

    I agree with DaveH on the nuclear, Thorium is THE nuclear fuel of the future. It is pretty much everything we wanted from fusion...NOW. The estimated cheap reserves are enough to last 8 billion people 100 years at AMERICAN per capita consumption rates (US power production works out to 40kw/hr per person per day). The LIKELY reserves are almost double that. We honestly have little need to look for the stuff at the moment as there's already enough out of the ground to last the current users decades. Also...molten salt reactors are a good way to go. They actually consume the more radioactive wastes as fuel during their normal cycle, can be cycled up and down easily like a coal plant, they self-moderate with temperature and even if you did manage to get one to overheat it just melts a plug at the bottom and dumps into the normal storage tank...big freaking deal.

    When the hell are the PRACTICAL solutions for energy going to be promoted?

    Oh well, if anyone needs me I'll be off somewhere banging my head against the wall.

  14. Eddie:

    One aspect neglected in Bailey's cost analysis is the necessary land. The new Florida solar facility covers 180 acres, for 25 MW. Increasing it by a factor of 40 would require 7,200 acres.

    I would suspect that finding and acquiring 7,200 contiguous acres suitable for a solar installation is considerably more difficult and expensive than 180 acres.

  15. david foster:

    In 2002, Russia completed the electrification of the entire trans-Siberian railroad. China has also invested heavily in railway electrification.

    Like wind & solar plants, railway electrification reduces future variable costs (diesel fuel, in this case) at the expense of heavy up-front capital outlays.

    I wonder how the ROI of electrifying the U.S. freight railroads would compare with the ROI of wind/solar? I bet it would be considerably better.

  16. rxc:

    We have an enormous amount of uranium already mined and available to turn into plutonium in breeder reactors, but are not doing that because it would provide an incentive to not-nice countries to make nuclear weapons.

    Oooops. I guess that didn't work.

    Even when we eventually run out of the uranium that we have on the ground in the US, we can mine it, or even take it out of sea water at a cost that is not much higher than the spot price of U was a few years ago. And considering that the cost of the uranium itself is really minuscule, when you look at nuclear cost, we will NEVER run out of reasonably-priced uranium, as long as it continues to rain in the mountains of the world and wash the uranium into the oceans.

    Thorium would be useful, but there is an existing infrastructure in place to deal with uranium fuel, and thorium has some quite unique "issues" that would make conversion of nuclear plants to that type of fuel failrly expensive. Not impossible, but until uranium gets VERY expensive, which is highly unlikely for a long time, the only people who will want to go to thorium will be the Indians, because they have a LOT of it. They really want the west to develop the technology and give it to them so that they can then become the Saudi Arabia of thorium.

    Not likely to happen.

    I used to license nuclear fuel designs for the NRC, and have some experience in this field...

  17. Allen:

    David, us freight railroads are already electric. They burn diesel to generate the electricity to drive the axles. They can move a ton of freight 400 to 450 miles with single gallon of that diesel. I have a hard time imagining investing a few billion in overhead gantries and another 10 or 20 billion in new equipment would yield efficiencies that make it worth it. If it did, why wouldn't US freight railroads be doing it? At least on certain key routes?

    Electrifying a rail line does nothing to reduce future variable costs because their is no certainty in future electrical costs. There are still no technological breakthroughs with wind nor solar that will create an environment of certainty to their costs. Sorry to be rude but for the sake of being brief and to the point, such a claim is down right laughable.

    In fact in the long run, it stands to reason that all things equal a BTU worth of energy will be priced the same.

    BTW - The Russians started electrifying their trans Siberian line back in the 1920s. They only finally finished it.

  18. onlyme:

    Add in the costs of energy storage to the solar farm, the physical footprint of both the storage and the farm itself, the loss in revenue due to land being unusable for anything else, the horrendous environmental impact of that many wind turbines, as well as the storage media for the power and the costs jump astronomically.

  19. Mark:

    Solar makes sense for rooftops in warm areas, where you don't really know what to do with your roof space anyway. Flying into Dallas you can see lots of white roofs which could be covered in solar panels, and the cost is coming down.

    What makes no sense whatsoever is filling the desert up with gigawatt solar capacity. Solar takes a lot of space, second only to wind you get from 100 - 300 watts per square meter depending on the technology.

    Someone up there mentioned we will eventually run out of coal. The USA has enough coal and shale to supply our energy needs, - all our energy needs - for 600 years. I imagine in 600 years with technology advancements we would be better able to figure out some other energy source.

  20. K:

    These figures are about right. Solar costs anywhere from four to ten times what coal or gas costs. The ratio depends mostly upon whether you use solar panels or solar heat concentration.

    Land may be too expensive for solar in some areas. Fortunately that is not too much of a problem in the southern latitudes of the US.

    Solar does not have fuel costs but it can have huge capital costs. Don't overlook the interest on billions of dollars of bonds.

    Solar Concentration helps solve the problem of generating electricity at night. For that and some other technical reasons I believe it will prevail over solar panels for utilities. But not for homes and buildings.

    Think like engineers and analysts. Build solar at low latitudes where it works best and don't waste money for prestige installations in the high latitudes. Use fossil fuels generators further North if you can't get nuclear built or lack reliable wind.

    The best single investment, bar none, is building a new grid.

    First we know how to build a new grid, the costs are known and controllable. And we know what it will save in power losses. It will also allow power from anywhere in the country to be used anywhere else. Such a grid will let us move the lowest cost power from where it is generated to where it is needed.

    Today the worst possible effort is to throw money into US urban transit. Everywhere that has been done in the US we have seen billions of $ vanish in political corruption while the transit system takes several decades to build and doesn't meet projections when done.

  21. Not Sure:

    "Everywhere that has been done in the US we have seen billions of $ vanish in political corruption..." - K

    I'm pretty sure the politicians who push to get these projects built consider that a feature, not a bug.

  22. Dan @ Israeli Uncensored News:

    It takes more energy to produce home solar water heaters than they produce during their entire lifespan. Also, don't forget the inflated cost of building a coal power plant: a 1,000 MWH plant costs only about $400 million in Russia.

  23. DrTorch:

    Thanks Lloyd. Glad to see someone else pointing out the benefits of solar thermal. A well-engineered plant can do wonders, both economically and ecologically. (As if those two things are really different.)

  24. Elliot:

    It seems obvious that the solar setup in the original article (remember that) was set up not to show how efficient it is, but how important the politicians are who could see farther, all the way to the next election where they will take credit for the sun itself if no one calls them on it.

    Nuclear is clearly the winner in all this but for the religion in the U.S. of Anti-Nuke. It's probably one of the reasons people give for hating the French, (though there are a few).

    I am sick and tired of people in science doing politics instead of science. Way out in front one has to decide to work harder to learn more about less than anyone else, then halfway to a PhD they turn around and sell out for the cause of Popular opinions and money making studies.