Several years ago, when energy issues first starting engaging the public, the New Yorker ran a cartoon showing an upscale couple sitting in a fancy restaurant. The wife leans across the table and says to her husband, “Frankly, they’ve been perfectly insufferable since they went solar.”
President Obama reprised this spirit last week when he hosted a “Solar Summit” at the White House. The chief executive threw another $15 million at solar development, touted the military’s embrace of “renewable” energy (they’re very good at following orders), and honored the usual gaggle of Democratic loyalists as “Champions of Change” for promoting solar power. The private sector, he promised, will soon be dragged along.
It was a fitting match-up. Solar energy now provides about 1 percent of the nation’s energy income. With a heroic effort and another round of government mandates, it could probably climb to 2 percent by the end of the decade. Almost all residential solar consumption is concentrated among the wealthy. In effect, Obama is championing the 1 percent.
Solar enthusiasts are now crowing that the falling costs of solar panels have brought it within range of the average household. That would be quite an accomplishment, since historically it has been four and five times as expensive. But there’s less here than meets the eye. Quite possibly cheap Asian manufacturing and mass production may bring solar to the point where it pays to put a few panels on your roof. I may even do it myself if the price is right. But a few obstacles still remain: 1) the enormous amount of land it takes to produce a decent amount of electricity, and 2) solar electric’s habit of disappearing as evening approaches or when the sun goes behind a cloud.
The amount of solar energy that waits to be harvested has never been in dispute. It averages 400 watts per square meter across the United States. The highest theoretical conversion rate is about 30 percent and the best anyone has achieved is 25 percent. This means that the amount of solar electricity available is enough to illuminate one 100-watt light bulb per card table. Now that’s a significant amount of electricity, say, for indoor lighting. A big box store such as Ikea could probably meet the majority of its daytime lighting needs by covering entire roofs with solar panels — and Ikea is doing just that around the country.
But after that the obstacles start falling into place. For any kind of utility-scale project, the land requirements are colossal and can’t be reduced. California has just inaugurated its Ivanpah Solar Thermal plant, a complex of 340,000 highly polished mirrors in the middle of the Mojave Desert that focus the sun’s rays on a tower where water is boiled. (The reason thermal projects are preferred for such installations is that they have a higher conversion rate than photovoltaic panels.) Ivanpah occupies five square miles and has a “nameplate capacity” of 400 megawatts, about the size of one smaller coal plant. But this is highly misleading, since solar generators only produce electricity about 25 percent of the time. The daily output will average closer to 100 MW, which is about the capacity of a submarine reactor. Nevertheless, environmentalists are already objecting to the disruption of the desert environment and Ivanpah will probably be the last of its kind. (Migratory birds also fry regularly when they cross its path but the Obama Administration will probably grant an exemption as it has already done for windmills.)
The bigger problem for both solar and wind, however, is their intermittency. In the event that the wind stops blowing or the sun goes behind a cloud, they have to have to be constantly backed up by — wouldn’t you know it? — conventional coal or gas plants. Renewable energy enthusiasts talk about installing giant batteries and energy storage is now one of the hottest fields for government research grants. But we’re at least a decade or more from anything on a commercial scale. One thing that is rarely mentioned — if solar or wind energy facilities are going to store electricity for off-hours, they will have to grow even more gargantuan than they are now.
What is far more likely is that natural gas will be enlisted to fill the gaps. It’s already happened in California. Figures just released by the Energy Information Administration show just over half of the 13,500 MW added to the national grid in 2013 came from natural gas. Solar ranked second with 3,000 MW, but once again this is nameplate capacity. The real contribution will be closer to 600 MW, the equivalent of one mid-sized coal or gas plant.
The most revealing statistic, however, is that half this new capacity, both gas and solar, was built in California. The Golden State added 3,900 MW in natural gas, 2,200 MW in solar, and another 300 MW in wind. Why the need for so much new electricity at a time when consumption is flat and the state is losing population? Precisely because the state is “going solar.” Having just completed Ivanpah and added large amounts of subsidized rooftop panels, the state now needs even more natural gas to back this all up. Only fast-starting combined-cycle gas turbines are capable of dealing with the vagaries of solar and wind. As a consequence, even though California leads the nation in “renewable” energy — or rather precisely because it does — the state now gets 65 percent of its electricity from natural gas, twice the national average.
As urban analyst Joel Kotkin has pointed out, solar energy in California has essentially become a plaything of the rich. Because putting solar panels on your roof is so expensive, only the wealthiest can afford it. The overall effect, however, has been to raise electrical prices to 50 percent above the national average. The state’s manufacturing base has been decimated and even Silicon Valley stalwarts such as Google and eBay are moving server farms out of state. Only digital plutocrats such as Tom Steyer, who have completely divorced themselves from the resource-based economy, can thrive in this environment.
So what about the rest of the population, which depends on oil and gas for 85 percent of its energy? How is the Obama Administration doing on that?
Well, the record here is pretty clear as well. Last week the Congressional Research Service released a report on the progress of the nation’s oil-and-gas revival, which has raised production back to 1970s levels and reduced oil imports to below 40 percent — something that seemed impossible only five years ago. The figures are illuminating. Oil and gas production on private lands has increased an astonishing 61 percent since 2009. Meanwhile the output from federal lands — 70 percent of the land west of the Rockies — has declined by 6 percent over the same period. The Obama Administration, with its perennial foot-dragging, kowtowing to environmentalists, and piling on of regulatory requirements, has actually succeeded in lowering gas and oil output over the course of its tenure. All this, of course, hasn’t prevented the President from taking credit for the new bonanza.
Moreover, still on the agenda is the Keystone Pipeline, which, aside from Obamacare, may turn out to be the key issue of the November election. Polls show the public favoring construction of the pipeline by a 2-to-1 majority. Yet the President has punted the issue past November and probably beyond his entire term of office. And why shouldn’t he be terrified of making a decision? Keystone has laid open the stark class conflict that now divides the Democratic Party. Opposition to the pipeline — and to conventional energy in general — is concentrated almost completely among the wealthy. One recent poll showed the only people opposed to Keystone are: 1) Democrats making over $100,000, and 2) Democrats with a Ph.D. Labor unions and the blue-collar working class, the cornerstone of the party since the 1930s, are now in open rebellion.
This has left Democrats trying to straddle a gerrymandered coalition of the well-to-do, with their passion for environmentalism, and the lumpenproletariat at the bottom whose only interest is government benefits. The great bloc of working people in the middle, making between $50,000 and $100,000, favors the Republicans. This is why the Administration spends so much time courting the “middle class” — because it knows it’s the one major sector of the electorate that doesn’t support it.
So here’s to President Obama and the solar 1 percent. They go well together. May they spend a lot of time after the November elections trying to figure out what happened.