Solar Ascendancy: Minnesota Court Ruling for Solar over Gas a Harbinger of Things to Come

(By Juan Cole)

Minnesota Judge Eric Lipman found that solar is a better deal than natural gas for Xcel Energy, permitting Geronimo Energy to construct 20 huge solar facilities worth $250 million in Xcel’s service area in that state. The amount of solar power in the state would increase by a factor of 7. The ruling still has to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

This ruling marks the first time that unsubsidized solar has gone toe to toe with natural gas and won (natural gas also receives Federal subsidies). As such, it may mark a turning point.

Here’s the kicker: Geronimo’s Aurora solar project will get no state subsidy (it is eligible for a Federal tax break, as are most solar projects including individual rooftop solar panel installations– these have not been affected by the budget uncertainties on Federal wind farm subsidies). This ruling marks the first time that unsubsidized solar has gone toe to toe with natural gas and won (natural gas also receives Federal subsidies). As such, it may mark a turning point. The ruling itself is the harbinger, whether the plan goes through or not.

But we can expect Big Oil and unscrupulous billionaire hydrocarbon moguls like the Koch brothers to attempt to block renewables by having pliant right wing legislators slap penalties on them (such Libertarians, they are). Remember that Big Oil and the other hydrocarbon industries get billions in government subsidies.

Natural gas prices are at a plateau because of oversupply problems in the US, so that little new drilling was done in the US in 2013. In 2013, in fact, the main reason that US carbon emissions fell to a still fatal 5 billion metric tons a year was not that coal plants were supplanted by gas ones; it was that they were supplanted by wind energy in places like Iowa and Colorado. New gas fields are now often developed through hydraulic fracturing, which is a very dirty technology and is meeting opposition (e.g. in New York, etc.) from the public as a result. It is also very water intensive and so not suited to arid zones. Burning the gas is creating deadly climate instability, so that the viability of solar is very good news for humankind. Even if solar were slightly more expensive than hydrocarbons, it is actually a huge bargain because deploying it won’t, like, inundate Miami and burn up Arizona.

The price of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the past 18 months. So much research and development money is now being thrown at photovoltaic cells and other solar technology that the cost per kilowatt hour of solar seems likely to continue to plummet over the coming years, though there will be market fluctuations and silicon’s price will be important until some other material (graphene?) starts being used. But in some markets, such as Colorado, the installed price of photovoltaic panels for utility-scale projects is $3.20 a watt mid-year. By the end of 2013, the average price was $3.06 per watt.

Even before the recent price drops, it was estimated that in much of the US a consumer who put solar panels on her house could save $1000 a year in electricity charges. It is certainly more now, especially given the Federal tax break for rooftop solar installation (many states also give incentives, though my backward Michigan doesn’t).

The US recently has been installing almost a gigawatt of new solar power every quarter, and has just joined the 10 gigawatt club. (A light bulb uses 40 watts; a gigawatt is a billion watts). All new power generation in November came from renewables.

Other signs that the writing is on the wall for dirty hydrocarbons: Through 2020, all new Australian electricity production will be from renewables, mainly wind but 13% will come from large-scale solar. Rooftop solar is also expanding rapidly– a million Australian homes have solar panels– in a country of 22 million with 7.7 million households, that is over 1/8 of them.

Japan is putting in 7 gigawatts of solar this year because of its new feed-in tariff and the energy crisis caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And China wants to add a mind-boggling 35 gigawatts of solar generation by 2015; it is building a huge array in Xianjang, the traditionally Muslim area of the northwest, part of the Middle Eastern Arid Zone that extends to the Gobi Desert.

Even a conservative state like Georgia is putting in 500 megawatts (i.e. half a gigawatt) of solar, and its energy commission fought off a Koch-Brothers-inspired plan to place a punitive tax on solar panel owners.

The world will replace hydrocarbons with solar and other renewables through this century. Unfortunately, humankind needs to launch a crash program and accomplish the transition in only a couple of decades if it is to avoid the threat of climate instability, a threat more potent and more immediate than most people realize. Unfortunately, there is no chance of us making the transition fast enough to avoid potential catastrophe. We can, however, make it fast enough to mitigate the very worst consequences, if we try.

Related Video:

Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks reports: “Koch Brothers behind Solar Power Fines ”

7 Responses

  1. A couple of things:
    1. How much of solar technology requires non-renewable materials or methods?
    The minerals needed to fabricate high efficiency modules may be abundant, but they are not renewable. The energy used to manufacture is, itself. frequently fossil based and non0renewable. Without the failsafe of coal or petroleum to jump start a technology, how resilient is high-tech solar? My conclusion is that a great deal of emphasis, effort, and ultimately reliance, must go to simple solar technologies to establish a non-fossil baseline. Salt thermal storage to power conventional steam turbines, for example.
    2. How much credit goes to these guys and their ilk for making Al Gore looking the fool? Does anybody talk about their ulterior motive?
    Sure, it was money, but how? In his book “Earth in the Balance” he proposed accounting for mineral extraction in a way that measured the value of the extracted minerals as a loss, such that profit and loss sheets would show less profit from mining. Kochs et al mine. Go figure.

    • Current photovoltaic cells use rare earth metals. However, the likelihood is that new and simpler technologies will soon be implemented. The speed of research and development in this field is mind-boggling.

      • Regardless of the technology used to generate the most efficient power, there must be a baseline amount of generating capacity that can be built up from basic technology. It’s like climbing a tree, and using the lower branches to make a ladder to reach the top. No way to get down and no way for anyone to get back up. We have the technology now to create some very basic technology.

  2. We need to Ban Fracking and implement a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff through out the State.

    California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

    The Southwest is in the midst of a record drought, some 14 years in the making, which means the water supply for many Western states – California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada – is drying up. Last month the Bureau of Reclamation announced they’re cutting the flow of water into Lake Mead, which has already lost 100 feet of water since the drought began.

    What happens if the Southwest drought does not end soon?

    Will we keep using 3 to 6 million gallons of Clean Water per Fracked well, to extract natural gas?

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

    The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

    The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

    This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

    There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected?

    Another generator of power that jumps out is natural gas, 45.3%, that is a lot of Fracked Wells poisoning our ground water, 3 to 6 million gallons of water are used per well. If Fracking is safe why did Vice Pres Cheney lobby and win Executive, Congressional, and Judicial exemptions from:

    Clean Water Act.

    Safe Drinking Water.

    Act Clean Air Act.

    Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

    Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act.

    National Environmental Policy Act.

    “Americans should not have to accept unsafe drinking water just because natural gas is cheaper than Coal. the Industry has used its political power to escape accountability, leaving the American people unprotected, and no Industry can claim to be part of the solution if it supports exemptions from the basic Laws designed to ensure that we have Clean Water and Clean Air” Natural Resources Defense Council.

    We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our pure clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

    The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

    FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
    Wind
    Photovoltaics (PV)
    Solar thermal
    Geothermal
    Biogas
    Biomass
    Fuel cells
    Tidal and wave power.

    There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

    The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

    Commercial Ca. rates are 17 – 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

    Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than 3-5 cents reduction in kilowatt per hour, for the first tier Residential rate in you area and for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar, there is a built in Fee for the Utility for using the Grid. A game changer for the Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying, Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet.

    We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

    Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

    link to signon.org

  3. The tax credits offered to home owners are a joke. The government has never offered serious incentives to individuals to go solar. In addition in most states the regulation and inspection of home solar systems are done by the electric municipalities, that are beholding to corporate fossil fuel entities.

  4. Germans continue to develop solar and wind with little regard for the FUD fed to the US. A billion euro/month last I heard. You can buy a lot of solar for a billion a month. It’s a helluva lot more renewable than drones. Enjoy.

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