Southwestern Solar: Bright Shining Disappointment

Solar farms in Southwest USA from Solar Energy Maps

D. Dowd. Muska reports in his National Review article A Bright Shining Disappointment.  Excerpts in italics with my bolds and added images.

Solar has failed in the Southwest.  In the ’70s, it all seemed so simple.

President Carter issued a proclamation declaring the sun “an inexhaustible source of clean energy.” A joint resolution of Congress predicted that “the development of solar technologies will provide an abundant, economical, safe, and environmentally compatible energy supply.” Robert Redford assured Americans that “the sun will always work” and “never increase its price on a heating bill.”

But nearly 50 years later, solar’s failure is blindingly clear. The Southwest Public Policy Institute, where I serve as a senior fellow, recently explored the contribution sunshine makes to utility-scale electricity generation in eight states: Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. What we discovered was jarring.

In the Southwest, solar generates a mere 6.4 percent of utility-scale power (power from facilities where total generation capacity is one megawatt or greater), despite the region enjoying the sunniest skies in America. While California (16.7 percent) and Nevada (14.4 percent) had the heaviest solar shares, the drop-off in the other states we studied was profound: Utah (8.1 percent), Arizona (5.5 percent), New Mexico (5.0 percent), Texas (3.1 percent), and Colorado (3.0 percent). Coming in last — and by a country mile — was the Sooner State, at a miniscule 0.1 percent.

These disappointing figures are all the more perplexing when one considers the massive level of government succor that has flowed the solar industry’s way since the late 1970s, the era of Annie Hall, the Bee Gees, and the Star Wars Holiday Special. In 2012, an audit by the Government Accountability Office found that federal agencies have overseen hundreds of “initiatives that support solar energy across the four key federal roles”: R&D; “fleets and facilities,” “commercialization and deployment,” and “regulation, permitting, and compliance.” For decades, wildly generous tax credits have been offered at the federal and state levels. And in the late 1990s, lawmakers began to adopt renewable portfolio standards, which required power suppliers to generate or purchase “green” electricity. In Arizona, 15 percent of power must satisfy these standards by 2025. In Nevada, the rule is 50 percent by 2030. And in New Mexico, all electricity is mandated to be “zero carbon” by 2045.

Enjoying both free fuel and government-conferred advantages, solar power should play a leading role in the Southwest. Yet it doesn’t.

This indicates that solar’s problems are fundamental. As the Institute for Energy Research recently noted, sunlight is “relatively weak because it must first pass through the atmosphere, which protects the Earth from the sun’s intensity.” In 2015, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the solar radiation that reaches us as suffering from “low energy density.” In addition, even the most-efficient photovoltaic panels in common use today convert far more solar irradiance to heat than electricity.

Intermittency, in energy journalist Robert Bryce’s opinion, is another “killer drawback” for solar: “Lower power output on cloudy days and during the winter — and zero output at night — means that solar power facilities must be paired with expensive batteries or conventional power plants in order to prevent blackouts or brownouts.”

“Free” fuel, it turns out, isn’t so free. As the Manhattan Institute’s Mark P. Mills explained:

Claims that wind, solar, and EVs have reached cost parity with traditional energy sources or modes of transportation are not based on evidence. Even before the latest period of rising energy prices, Germany and Britain — both further down the grid transition path than the U.S. — have seen average electricity rates rise 60%-110% over the past two decades. The same pattern is visible in Australia and Canada. It’s also apparent in U.S. states and regions where mandates have resulted in grids with a higher share of wind/solar energy. In general, overall U.S. residential electricity costs rose over the past 20 years.

But those rates should have declined because of the collapse in the cost of natural gas and coal — the two energy sources that, together, supplied nearly 70% of electricity in that period. Instead, rates have been pushed higher thanks to elevated spending on the otherwise unneeded infrastructure required to transmit wind/solar-generated electricity, as well as the increased costs to keep lights on during “droughts” of wind and sun that come from also keeping conventional power plants available (like having an extra, fully fueled car parked and ready to go) in effect by spending on two grids.

Then there’s the NIMBYs. Utility-scale solar, in community after community,
faces resistance from locals.

In November, the Roswell Daily Record reported that a New Mexico regulatory agency “voted against three proposed [solar] projects after hearing objections from county residents.” Issues raised included fencing that “will deter from scenic views and hurt property values” and “concerns that the panels contain hazardous substances.” According to The Durango Herald, residents near Hesperus, Colo., have banded together to fight a photovoltaic project, citing concerns about “water runoff” and “direct loss of 1,900 acres of elk habitat.”

In short, solar has not been shining very bright since it came on the scene in the ’70s. Indeed, even in the sun-drenched Southwest, solar has proven inefficient, unreliable, and — when all costs are considered — expensive. That should be a warning:

If it struggles here, in ideal conditions, how well
can it be expected to perform in the rest of the country?

D. Dowd. Muska is a senior fellow at the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a research institute dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting and defending sound public policy solutions.

When it opened in 2014, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility was the world’s largest solar thermal power station, covering 4000 acres in the Mohave desert. While Ivanpah was supposed to be the future of clean energy, it seems that the rate at which it burns fossil fuel might actually outweigh any environmental benefits of solar power production.


  1. Bruce Sanders · January 9

    “abundant, economical, safe, and environmentally compatible energy supply.”   note that the word reliable is not included.  Economical is obviously wrong.


  2. Pingback: Southwestern Solar: Bright Shining Disappointment - Climate-

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