Despite the long-standing assertion by proponents that solar energy is nearing a breakthrough, the failure of solar energy to achieve significant market penetration despite heavy and sustained public subsidies over the last two decades is no mystery. The costs of scaling solar remain reliably higher than not only fossil energy but also other non-fossil alternatives, most notably nuclear. Continued growth of solar will require continued heavy subsidies for the foreseeable future.
(…snip…)Bottom line, even cherry-picking best case solar facilities, ignoring heavy subsidies, ignoring artificially low module prices, ignoring costs of backing up solar and balancing intermittency, and assuming the worst case for nuclear in terms of cost overruns, scaling solar still costs substantially more than scaling nuclear today. While nuclear has displayed negative learning rates in many countries, recent nuclear deployment efforts have achieved substantial reductions in upfront capital costs over time, including in South Korea and China. Moreover, due to the difficulty of exporting soft cost gains and to enduring austerity, solar cost declines experienced recently will likely prove difficult to sustain and replicate globally in the coming years.
The Breakthrough Institute published a new report on low-carbon energy options on July 3, 2013. The reports tackles the question “Can solar electrical generation realistically scale to displace coal and gas-fired plants?”. This is a complex issue which definitely does not lend itself to sound-bite media appetites. I found the report to be objective and well-supported by suitable citations.
The conclusions will offend solar fans – especially those who are also anti-nuclear. I hope that those readers will not reject the report without first studying the linked citations. I will be watching for reasoned criticism of the report. Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from the conclusions:
Recent relative gains in solar costs and deployment provide a highly questionable basis for sustained progress over the coming decade. Costs remain high and are declining significantly more slowly than proponents suggest. Module costs will continue to decline over the long term, as solar efficiency improves and manufacturing efficiencies are realized. However real module costs have not come down as quickly as proponents claim. Nor do module costs represent the primary barrier to low costs.
Balance-of-system and other soft costs now represent the lion’s share of installed solar costs, particularly for rooftop solar, which cannot benefit from economies of scale, as large industrial solar installations can. Lacking some major breakthrough in solar installation technologies, solar deployment is likely to remain costly and labor intensive. Reductions in cost will come incrementally, in response to the scale up of domestic solar industries and will continue to require heavy, sustained subsidies in order to realize.
Scaling solar without heavy subsidies will require bringing both module and installation costs down dramatically, significant breakthroughs in electricity transmission and storage, and perhaps greater pursuit of centralized solar plants that can benefit from economies of scale and superior citing. As a long-term strategy to develop better and cheaper technologies, continuing and even expanded solar subsidies may be justified. But heavily subsidized solar does not represent a serious short-term strategy to replace either fossil energy or nuclear.
Please read the whole report.