From STOP THESE THINGS
Anyone claiming that solar power is a meaningful power source, has never seen a sunset, and they can’t have never seen a hurricane, hailstorm, or snowfall, or witnessed an icy frost. Because each of those planetary and meteorological events destroys either the panels themselves, or their ability to provide power consumers with electricity.
In this well-crafted piece, Roger Calazza seeks to set the record straight when it comes to fanciful talk about solar power, being a power source of the future.
Five Reasons New Yorkers Should Not Embrace a Solar Energy Future
Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York
20 June 2023
On June 18, 2023 the Syracuse Post Standard published a commentary, Five Reasons New Yorkers Should Embrace a Solar Energy Future by Richard Perez, Ph.D. According to the introduction “This essay aims to clarify common misunderstandings about solar energy and demonstrate its potential to provide an abundant, reliable, affordable and environmentally friendly energy future for New York”. This post explains why I disagree with just about everything in the essay.
The only reason that New York is pushing solar as part of the energy future of New York is the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act). I have been following the Climate Act since it was first proposed, submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan, and have written over 300 articles about New York’s net-zero transition. I have devoted a lot of time to the Climate Act because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act established a New York “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050 and an interim 2030 target of a 40% reduction by 2030. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.” In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric grid with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040.
The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies. That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan. After a year-long review, the Scoping Plan recommendations were finalized at the end of 2022. In 2023 the Scoping Plan recommendations are supposed to be implemented through regulation and legislation.
According to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) “Gold Book” load and capacity report, in 2022 there were a total of 4,444 MW of solar nameplate capacity (154 MW of utility-scale solar and 4,290 MW of behind-the-meter) on-line in the state. However, implementation of the Climate Act transition to net-zero will significantly increase that amount by 2030. By 2030 the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) and consultant Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) Integration Analysis that provides quantitative estimates of resources for the Scoping Plan projects a total of 18,852 MW and the NYISO 2021-2040 System & Resource Outlook projects 14,731 MW.
Against that backdrop, I address the five reasons Dr. Perez uses to promote solar energy.
Abundance: The sun is a vast energy resource that powers our planet’s weather and sustains life. In just a few hours, Earth receives more solar energy than the total annual energy consumption of all economies, combined. In a week, it receives more solar energy than the combined reserves of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium.
So what? According to the US Geological Service water covers about 71% of the earth’s surface and yet there are deserts with very little water available for use. The critical requirement is the need for energy when and where needed and New York solar is not situated well in that regard. The Scoping Plan strategy to decarbonize relies on electrification of homes and transportation so future expected peak loads will occur in the winter. In New York the winter solar resource is poor because the days are short, the irradiance is low because the sun is low in the sky, and clouds and snow-covered panels contribute to low expectations for solar resource availability. The New York Independent System Operator does not plan on any solar contribution to resources available for the peak winter hourly load.
Growth of solar technology: Solar technology, known as photovoltaics (PV), has experienced significant expansion. Since the 1980s, PV deployment has consistently grown at a remarkable annual rate of 30%, overcoming economic and political fluctuations. This growth is due to improvements in efficiency, versatility and cost-effectiveness, enabling solar to enter new markets successfully. Experts predict this trend will continue, and, if the stable 30% annual rate persists, by the early 2040s, there may be enough solar installations worldwide to entirely power global economies.
If it is so good, then why does deployment rely on direct subsidies? Solar proponents don’t acknowledge the incompatibility of solar resources with electric system reliability. In order to match generation with load requirements grid operators must dispatch generating resources to match the load. Solar PV facilities are not dispatchable so their deployment complicates rather than enhances grid operations. Finally, there will always be limits on just how much power can be obtained from any solar panel. Therefore, I suspect that solar will always rely on direct subsidies to make it competitive.
Affordability: Reports from leading financial advisers such as the Lazard Bank show that utility-scale solar electricity has become the least expensive form of electricity generation. Solar power is now considerably cheaper than new coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy. Experts anticipate solar electricity becoming even cheaper in the future, with a projected 50% cost decrease within the next 15 years. Moreover, solar plants can be built and operational within months, making them economically advantageous compared to the lengthy construction time for nuclear plants.
The claim that “utility-scale solar electricity has become the least expensive form of electricity generation” refers only to power capacity (MW). Even if solar capacity is half the cost of fossil capacity the cost for delivered energy is much more. We pay for the kWh electric energy we use each month and we expect it to be available 24-7 throughout the year.
In order to provide usable energy, other things must be considered that destroy the myth that utility-scale solar is cheaper than other types of power plants. On average a well-designed solar facility can provide (round numbers) 20% of its potential energy possible in New York. A natural gas fired power plant can operate to produce at least 80% of its potential energy over a year. In order to produce the same amount of energy, that means that you need four times as much solar capacity. Even if the solar capacity cost is half the cost for the capacity the energy cost is double simply due to this capacity factor difference.
But wait, there is more. In order to make the energy available when needed storage must be added to the cost of the solar capacity. Also consider that the life expectancy of solar panels is half of the observed life expectancy of fossil-fired power plants.
There are unintended financial consequences that affect the viability of other generators that are needed for reliability that add to ratepayer costs. Because the solar resource is diffuse, it is necessary to support the transmission system to get the solar power to New York City. There are inherent characteristics of conventional generation that contribute to the stability of the transmission system that are not provided by solar or wind generation. Someone, somewhere must deploy a replacement resource to provide those ancillary transmission services and that cost should be included in the cost comparison.
Finally, the Integration Analysis, NYISO, New York State Reliability Council, and the Public Service Commission all agree that another resource that can be dispatched and is emissions-free (DEFR) is needed when the electric grid becomes dependent upon solar and wind resources. The state’s irrational fear of nuclear generation precludes the only proven resource that meets the necessary criteria so an entirely new resource must be developed, tested, and deployed.
The Integration Analysis and NYISO 2021-2040 System & Resource Outlook both project that the DEFR resource will be comparable in size to existing fossil resources but will operate no more than 9% of the time. I have yet to see an expected cost for this resource but have no doubts that it will be extraordinarily expensive. Summing all the costs necessary to make solar power usable for electric energy reliable delivery and there is no doubt that solar is much more expensive than conventional generation.
Reliability: Solar energy’s intermittency has been a concern, but solutions are emerging to ensure a continuous power supply available day and night year round without fail. These solutions include energy storage, optimized integration of solar and wind energy, and maintaining a small degree of flexibility with conventional power generation. The most efficient solution, however, involves overbuilding solar installations. These firm power solutions are expected to reduce the cost of reliable solar and wind electricity to levels competitive with current energy markets. The International Energy Agency predicts that most economies worldwide will achieve 100% renewable electricity generation at a cost of 3-7 cents per kWh.
The discussion of costs above listed all the resources necessary to provide reliable energy from intermittent solar resources. Renewable energy proponents don’t acknowledge or understand the resource adequacy analyses the NYISO performs to ensure the system meets New York’s stringent reliability standards. The NYISO has a process that has been developed and refined over decades that determines just how much extra power capacity is necessary to cover the unexpected loss of operating capacity at any one time.
A fundamental presumption based on observations in the NYISO analyses is that conventional generating resources operate independently. The problem with a generating system dependent upon wind and solar resources is that there is a very high correlation between wind and solar output across the state. At night every solar resource provides zero energy and whenever there is a storm large portions of the state will be covered by clouds.
There are similar issues for wind resources that can last for days. NYISO and the New York State Reliability Council are just coming to grips with this correlation problem for wind and solar resources and how future resource adequacy analyses will have to be modified to refine the reliability standards.
Finally, note that this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the hottest and coldest periods in New York associated with the highest electrical loads correlate very well with high pressure systems with light winds. In the summer, this improves solar resource availability but, in the winter, when the solar resource is low because days are shorter and irradiance lower this problem makes the supply challenge even more difficult. The key point is this is a huge reliability risk that will have massive health and welfare impacts if not addressed adequately.
Resource adequacy by the experts responsible for the electric system contrasts starkly with the cavalier reliability explanation in this section. Solutions are “emerging” is a hollow promise because of physics. There is a real concern because all the emerging alleged solutions must overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Any energy storage system must lose energy as it is stored and then again as it comes out of storage. This limits the viability of every storage system proposed to meet this challenge.
Overbuilding is touted as the “most efficient solution” but it has consequences. This solution recognizes that storage is expensive so overbuilding solar installations reduces the periods when it is necessary to rely on storage to meet demand peaks. This affects the so-called duck curve created when distributed solar resources reduce net demand during the day (the duck’s belly) but sharply increase demand at sunset (the duck’s neck). As more solar resources are added the difference is increased and the challenge to balance load and generation is more difficult.
Given all the issues that I described above, the statement: “These firm power solutions are expected to reduce the cost of reliable solar and wind electricity to levels competitive with current energy markets” is mis-information. Every jurisdiction that has increased the use of solar and wind resources without the use of other uniquely available resources, like hydro or geothermal, has seen massive increases in costs.
Environmental footprint: Solar energy has a significantly lower environmental impact compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power. While it is not entirely free of environmental concerns, it poses fewer climate, pollution and accident risks. Concerns regarding land area for solar farms are often exaggerated. Studies show that achieving a 100% renewable PV/wind future for New York would require less than 1% of the state’s total area. Furthermore, solar farming can generate revenue for communities, provide support for farmers, and be implemented efficiently. PV farms are considerably more space-efficient (50 to 200 times more) than existing energy farming industries harvesting corn ethanol.
The comparison of environmental impacts in the Climate Act Scoping Plan and this statement is biased. The Climate Act mandates that upstream emissions and impacts be considered but does not apply the same condition on wind and solar resources. The claim that there are lower environmental impacts may be true for New York but that does not mean that there are no impacts. Instead. they are moved elsewhere, likely where environmental constraints and social justice concerns are not as strict as here.
Solar panels, wind turbines and batteries all require significant processing and mining that are not considered in this assessment of environmental footprint. Mark Mills explains:
It has long been known that building solar and wind systems requires roughly a tenfold increase in the total tonnage of common materials—concrete, steel, glass, etc.—to deliver the same quantity of energy compared to building a natural gas or other hydrocarbon-fueled power plant. Beyond that, supplying the same quantity of energy as conventional sources with solar and wind equipment, along with other aspects of the energy transition such as using electric vehicles (EVs), entails an enormous increase in the use of specialty minerals and metals like copper, nickel, chromium, zinc, cobalt: in many instances, it’s far more than a tenfold increase. As one World Bank study noted, the “technologies assumed to populate the clean energy shift … are in fact significantly MORE material intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems.”
Another ignored environmental issue is the disposal of solar panels when they no longer work. A recent BBC podcast, “The Climate Question,” raises serious issues about the lifespan and end-of-life management of solar panels. Note that the Hochul Administration has not prepared a cumulative environmental impact assessment for the increased wind and solar development projected in the Integration Analysis so these impacts are not adequately addressed.
I have summarized all my solar development articles here. Even though “a 100% renewable PV/wind future for New York would require less than 1% of the state’s total area” that does not mean that there will not be significant impacts because the Hochul administration has not developed a solar development implementation plan.
There is no mandate that solar developments meet the Department of Agriculture and Markets goal for projects “to limit the conversion of agricultural areas within the Project Areas, to no more than 10% of soils classified by the Department’s NYS Agricultural Land Classification mineral soil groups 1-4, generally Prime Farmland soils, which represent the State’s most productive farmland.”
Projects approved to date have converted 21% of the prime farmland within project areas. Another major failure is that there is no requirement for utility-scale solar projects to use tracking-axis solar panels. As a result, the estimates of the capacity needed are under-estimates because I have yet to find a solar development that has committed to that type of panel. Consequently, permitted facilities will have lower capacity factors than assumed in the Integration Analysis so more panels will be needed and more prime farmland lost.
According to the article Dr. Perez:
Leads solar energy research at SUNY Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He has served multiple terms on the board of the American Solar Energy Society and as associate editor of Solar Energy Journal. Perez serves on the board of United Solar Energy Supporters, a statewide nonprofit group providing education and information to the public about solar energy.
I highly recommend the post by Russel Schussler Academics and the Grid because it does a good job explaining why academic studies of the energy system need to be considered carefully. He concludes:
Academic research that promotes improvements to the power grid needs to be evaluated carefully with the understanding that the grid is a complex system full of interactions. Changes to the grid involve numerous hurdles. Language is often imprecise. For instance, when readers see a statement stating “Solar and wind could attain penetration levels of X”. What the statement really means is “Based on the factors I looked at and ignoring a vast number of critical requirements I have not looked at, solar and wind may be able to replace fossil resources at a level of X. But probably not.” Unfortunately, the statement is often interpreted as “Solar and wind can attain penetration levels of X with no significant concerns.”
I believe that this is relevant to the commentary by Perez. The abundance of solar energy argument ignores that availability when and where needed is a critical requirement. Solar energy in New York is limited because of the latitude and weather so there are limits to the value of technological improvements. The complexity of reliability planning and analysis is dismissed with promises of improvements but there are fundamental problems that must be overcome. The affordability argument is a perfect example of ignoring a vast number of critical aspects and the experience of all the other jurisdictions that have tried something similar and found massive cost impacts. The claim of limited environmental impacts is only tenable if the mining and waste disposal impacts are ignored.
Perez concludes “By dispelling these misunderstandings and recognizing the potential of solar energy, New York can embrace an abundant, dependable, affordable, and environmentally friendly energy future.” The reasons given to address alleged misunderstandings do not stand up to scrutiny.
The suggestion that a system depending on solar energy will be dependable and affordable would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. The existing affordability and reliability of the existing electric system has evolved over decades using dispatchable resources with inherent qualities that support the transmission of electric energy.
The net-zero electric system will depend upon resources subject to the vagaries of weather, that do not support grid resilience, and include an unknown resource that must overcome the second law of thermodynamics. This is a recipe for disaster because if the resource adequacy planning does not correctly estimate the worst-case period of abnormally low wind and solar energy availability then the energy needed to keep the lights on and homes heated will not be available when needed most and people will freeze to death in the dark.