Skimming headlines these days, you might be left with the impression that solar energy, the energy source that seems eternally poised to change the energy game, is finally going to live up to its potential in coming years. Bloomberg tells us that:
Renewable energy is now a force to be reckoned with. Last year non-fossil fuels, including nuclear, accounted for more of the increase in global energy consumption than oil, gas and coal combined. Particularly notable are record installations of solar panels.
Meanwhile, the Economist reports:
[T]he prospects for a clean-energy future have never looked brighter. The cost of solar power is tumbling thanks to new technology and greater efficiency—the average cost of a residential solar system in the United States is $3.48 a watt, 10% down on last year.
Never-brighter prospects, record solar panel installations, greater efficiencies…it sounds like solar energy has reached the tipping point greens have always promised. But that’s only if we discount certain facts. As Varun Sivaram writes for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Energy, Security, and Climate blog:
Today, unsubsidized silicon solar panels are not cost-competitive with conventional generation in the United States. To seriously challenge fossil fuels around the world, solar PV must achieve “grid parity,” or a cost that is competitive with other power sources on an unsubsidized basis…
[Authors of “The Future of Solar” report from the MIT Energy Institute] find that a large, utility-scale solar installation is not competitive with a combined-cycle thermal plan—a common natural gas generator—regardless of whether the solar is sited in a sunnier location (they use California and Massachusetts as representative cases of sunny and cloudy climates)…even with [a] generous set of assumptions that stacks the calculation in solar’s favor, the [levelized cost of electricity] of solar remains higher than that of natural gas in California’s sunny climate.
If and when solar technology becomes advanced enough to elbow out fossil fuels for market share on its own merit, we’ll be its biggest cheerleaders. Though major questions about energy storage and new grid designs still need to be answered, a solar panel efficient enough to produce electricity cheaper than coal, for example, would be a wondrous thing.
But subsidizing today’s generations of solar panels doesn’t help us achieve tomorrow’s dreams. Instead, it plows precious government money, as well as social and political capital, into a technology that raises electricity bills and is still plagued by the intermittency problem. These choices impose a large opportunity cost: money spent on propping up current generation solar could be spent on the research and development solar needs to claim its rightful spot in the global energy mix.