Sea Glass

Sea Glass

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Solar & Wind Cheaper?

Kate Galbraith has an excellent post in the 11/13 NYT:

“Solar is cheaper than coal today,” asserts Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun Edison who now heads the Carbon War Room, a new nonprofit group.
This is a provocative statement, given that — as my colleague Matthew L. Wald reported this year — studies by the Electric Power Research Institute and elsewhere show that solar thermal technologies are far more expensive than coal, and photovoltaic rooftop solar panels, in turn, generally produce more expensive electricity than solar thermal.
Mr. Shah’s argument in fact relies on combining solar with several other technologies: smart grid, energy efficiency and energy storage.
Together, he argues, those four technologies can substitute for a large, base-load coal plant that provides power around the clock — at a lower cost.
“All of the four technologies can be employed in small bits and chunks, it can be done on a scalable basis to meet exactly the need but not more than we need,” Mr. Shah said.
Technologies like energy efficiency, solar and wind, Mr. Shah noted, may have high up-front costs but their running costs are low, because (in the case of solar and wind) the fuel — the air or the sun — is free.
However, “we insist on continuing to invest in technologies that are exactly the opposite — high capital costs, subject to volatile fuel prices,” Mr. Shah said.
(Of course, if coal plants are subject to carbon pricing in the coming years as part of the nation’s effort to combat global warming, their costs will go up, too.)
Mark Pinto, the chief technology officer of Applied Materials, a company that makes equipment for solar projects, offered another vision of the price of solar.
“Solar competes against peaking,” Mr. Pinto said. In other words, because the sun shines during the day, when air conditioners and lights are cranked up and demand on the grid is heavy, solar power competes directly against natural gas plants that only get turned on to meet that peak demand.
“When you compare solar costs to other peaking electricity costs,” in some cases solar is ahead of gas, Mr. Pinto said.
But Mr. Shah argued that the solar-is-good-for-peaking argument “just pigeonholes us” as meeting only a particular need. Solar power, he said, can be positioned as part of a broader solution.
Readers, we’d love to hear your thoughts: What is the best way of looking at the price of solar today?

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