Solar power propaganda vs. the real world

By Marita Noon

When a former “senior communications official at the White House” writes a blog post for U.S. News and World Report, you should be able to trust it. But when the author states that the Keystone pipeline (should it be approved) would create only 19 weeks of temporary jobs, everything else he says must be suspect—including the claim that our “energy infrastructure will be 100% solar by 2030.”

I contacted both a union representative and one from TransCanada—the company behind the Keystone pipeline. Each affirmed that the 19-week timeframe was total fantasy. The portion of the Keystone pipeline that remains to be built is 1,179 miles long—the vast majority of that within the U.S.—with construction expected to take 2 years.

TransCanada’s spokesperson Mark Cooper responded to my query: “While some people belittle these jobs as temporary, we know that without temporary construction jobs—and the hard work of the men and women who do them—we wouldn’t have roads, highways, schools, or hospitals. We wouldn’t have the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Hoover Dam. So, I would say to these detractors: ‘It is OK if you don’t like or support Keystone XL. But let’s stop putting down the very people who have helped build America.’”

The premise of the On the Edge blog post is that we shouldn’t look at Keystone as a jobs creator. Instead, the author claims, the jobs are in “solar energy disruption.” He is frustrated that “GOP leaders almost universally ignore or disdain this emerging energy economy.”

He states: “A third of all new electric generation in 2014 came from solar. A new solar installation or project now occurs somewhere in the U.S.—built by a team of American workers employed in the fastest growing energy sector in the world—every 3 minutes.”

This may be true but, as you’ll see, it belies several important details. Plenty of cause exists for Republican lawmakers to “disdain” the growth in renewable energy.

If “a third of all new electric generation in 2014 came from solar,” there is reason for it—and it does not include sound economics.

First, efficient and effective base-load, coal-fueled electricity that has provided the bulk of America’s power is being prematurely shut down by regulations prompted by salemharbor2environmental lobbyists and promulgated by the Obama Administration. It is virtually impossible to get a new coal-fueled power plant permitted in the U.S. Even natural gas-powered plants, such as the one planned to replace the Salem Harbor coal-fueled plant, meet with resistance from groups such as Grassroots Against Another Salem Plant, which “has pledged to use peaceful civil disobedience to block construction of the gas plant.” And, of course, just try to build a nuclear power plant and all the fear-mongers come out.

What’s left? Renewables, such as wind and solar, receive favorable treatment through a combination of mandates and subsidies. Even industrial wind and solar have their own opposition within the environmental lobby groups because they chop up and fry birds and bats— including protected bald and golden eagles.

The brand new report, Solar Power in the U.S.(SPUS), presents a comprehensive look at the impacts of solar power on the nation’s consumers.

Clearly, without the mandates and subsidies, this “solar energy disruption” would go dark.

abengoa2We’ve seen companies, such as Solyndra, Abound Solar, and Evergreen Solar, go bankrupt even with millions of dollars in state and federal (taxpayer) assistance. I’ve written extensively on these stories and that of Abengoa—which received the largest federal loan guarantee ($2.8 billion) and has resorted to questionable business practices to keep the doors open (Abengoa is currently under investigation from several federal agencies).

SPUS shows that without the subsidies and mandates these renewable projects can’t survive. For example, in Australia, sales of solar systems “fell as soon as the incentives were cut back.” Since the Australian government announced that it was reconsidering its Renewable Energy Targets, “investments have started to dry up.”

Knowing the importance of the “incentives,” the solar industry has now become a major campaign donor, providing political pressure and money to candidates, who will bring on more mandates, subsidies, and tax credits. Those candidates are generally Democrats, as one of the key differences between the two parties is that Democrats tend to support government involvement.

By contrast, Republicans lean toward limited government and the free market. The GOP doesn’t “disdain” solar, but they know it only survives because of government mandates that require a certain percentage of renewables, and specifically solar, in the energy mix, plus the subsidies and tax credits that make it attractive. Therefore, they can’t get excited about the jobs being created as a result of taxpayers’ involuntary investment, nor higher energy costs. There is a big difference between disdaining solar power and disdaining the government involvement that gives it an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

The blog post compares the “solar energy disruption” to what “occurred when direcTV and Dish started to compete with cable television. More choices emerged and a whole lot of new jobs were created.” However, those jobs were created through private investment and the free market—a fact that, along with solar’s dependence on incentives, he never mentions. Likewise, the jobs supported by building the Keystone pipeline would be through private funding.

The blog’s author touts this claim, from the book Clean Disruption: “Should solar continue on its exponential trajectory, the energy infrastructure will be 100% solar by 2030”—15 years from now. Even if state and federal governments were to continue to pour money into solar energy—which, as is pointed out in SPUS, subsidies are already being dialed back on a variety of fronts, there is no currently available solution to solar’s intermittency.

SPUS draws upon the example of Germany, which has led the way globally in solar and other renGermanycoalewables. Over time the high renewable penetration has contributed to residential electricity prices more than doubling. Renewables received favored status, called “priority dispatch,” which means that, when renewable electricity becomes available, the utilities must dispatch it first, thereby changing the merit order for thermal plants. Now many modern natural gas-fueled plants, as well as coal, couldn’t operate profitably. As a result, many were shut down, while several plants were provided “capacity payments” by the government (a double subsidy) in order to stay online as back-up—which maintains system stability. In Germany’s push for 80% renewable energy by 2050, it has found that despite the high penetration of renewables, given their inherent intermittency, a large amount of redundancy of coal- and natural-gas-fueled electricity (nuclear being decommissioned) is necessary to maintain the reliability of the grid.

As the German experience makes clear, without a major technological breakthrough to store electricity generated through solar systems, “100% solar by 2030” is just one more fantasy.

The blog post ends with this: “The GOP congressional leadership ignores these new jobs inside an innovative, disruptive energy sector that is about to sweep across the country it leads—in favor of a vanishingly small number of mythical Keystone ‘jobs’ that may never materialize. It makes you wonder. Why?”

The answers can be found in SPUS, which addresses the policy, regulatory, and consumer protection issues that have manifested themselves through the rapid rise of solar power and deals with many more elements than covered here. It concludes: “Solar is an important part of our energy future, but there must be forethought, taking into account future costs, jobs, energy reliability, and the overall energy infrastructure already in place. This technology must come online with the needs of the taxpayer, consumer and ratepayer in mind instead of giving the solar industry priority.”