The Societal Costs Associated with Solar Power – 5/11/16

In the case of societal costs, the net gain from zero-carbon electricity tends to be countered with critiques based on the damage done to the economy from wasted subsidies or job losses in other industries like coal, which has been hit the hardest by increased usage of renewables. The problem with saying solar “kills” jobs is that coal already provides fewer jobs than renewables.

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Looking back at yesterday’s article, the falling price of clean power also makes it hard to call solar a waste of taxpayer money when unsubsidized solar power is already cheaper than coal power in a number of areas while rapidly gaining on it in others. Even Texas – the oil star of the south – installs more solar power than coal power nowadays simply because solar is becoming more profitable on its own merits than coal can compete with.

by state

So factoring in the net gain in jobs, lower healthcare costs related to air and water pollution, less environmentally destructive mining operations, lower electricity bills, and increased independence from the power grid, it is not hard to see how a vast majority of US citizens would benefit from increased solar power generation.

The next issue often brought up by solar power detractors is the idea that solar generation only works where there is enough sunlight. Ignoring the fact that high voltage transmission lines exist and could easily carry clean power between states, this is actually a good point because light intensity is important to the process of generating electricity and solar power will be less viable in arctic regions where daylight is scarce. But less light only means less return on investment, and solar panels will produce electricity in some amount anywhere the sun shines. Solar power already finds applications in spacecraft and remote facilities because it does not require any sort of connection to a central grid to provide power. It can function without costly infrastructure or transportation networks, a major reason why it has done so well on the remote island state of Hawaii.

Finally, there is inconsistent energy generation. Obviously, solar panels only work when the sun is out; they will have to use either stored or grid power at night or on cloudy days. There is also the issue of how to accommodate the difference between high solar power output at noon and low output at dawn and dusk. Unfortunately, grid accommodation will have to come from utilities that have historically fought the revenue draining effects of distributed solar; however, the issue of stored power may be solved with the rapid decline in the price of battery storage. Tesla’s mass produced electric car batteries can just as easily be installed in homes and at solar power plants to act as a bridge between excess generation at noon and usage at night.

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