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Solar Power Is Booming — Why Do We Want To Kill It? 415

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-what-we-do dept.
TaeKwonDood writes with a followup to the news we discussed over the weekend about tariffs being places on Chinese solar panels. He writes, "According to Forbes, 'Solar power is booming. Imports from China were a tepid $21 million in 2005, but in 2011 installations totaled nearly $2.7 billion. That's a huge win. And just as advocates for solar power had hoped, a larger market drove down prices. Solar energy cost has declined by two-thirds in the last four years, meaning it will soon start to close in on fossil fuels.' There's just one problem: now the government wants to kill it. The article continues, 'As the market was flooded by both silicon (from silicon producers) and thin-film panels (by Chinese manufacturers), the price for thin-film panels came crashing down – along with Solyndra’s business model. ... Yet that isn’t the only instance of mismanagement. The whole clean energy program remains flawed, even at the consumer level. The people who are the most likely to be impacted by high energy prices, the poor, are the least likely to benefit from the solar rebate scheme because they lack the capital to pay for the installation.'"
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Solar Power Is Booming — Why Do We Want To Kill It?

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  • the poor, are the least likely to benefit from the solar rebate scheme because they lack the capital to pay for the installation.'"

    Uh oh.

    • by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:58PM (#39501673) Journal

      Probably because you can recognize horseshit when you smell it. Apparently, this article's author has never heard of solar lease programs, which are intended for precisely that market. Instead of paying money to the power company, you pay a lower power bill to a company that sticks panels on your roof (and presumably reaps the profits if production exceeds your usage). There's usually zero up-front cost, and these programs are readily available in many places.

      • by rickb928 (945187) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:08PM (#39501803) Homepage Journal

        The poor usually don't have their own roofs to put solar panels on. Their landlords may not bother to. Mounting them in the yard may not work either.

        Let's focus on the markets that CAN take advantage of roof mounted or ground mounted solar. Or not.

        • by mlts (1038732) * on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:21PM (#39501981)

          There is one market where solar is becoming a must, and that is RV-ing. With all the electric-hungry appliances that are running off 12 volts, coupled with the fact that batteries take a long time to come up to full charge, solar is becoming a must have for anyone with a RV who isn't just staying on an RV park's shore power 24/7/365. With rigs getting larger, there is plenty of space to add panels.

          Add to this flexible solar panels that can be rolled up, and I can envision someone able to run appliances like the A/C or microwave off a battery bank that is recharged by the solar panels on the ceiling, awning, and perhaps an extended room.

          So, for RV-ers, it is something that allows for the comforts of home without having to break out the generator.

      • these programs are readily available in many places.

        Indeed. Here in California, I have had representatives of three different companies knock on my door and try to convince me to let them install free solar panels on my roof. We have tiered energy pricing, and solar only makes sense for people who use enough energy to bump them into the 30 cent tier. I don't use enough, so they leave as soon as I show them my monthly electricity bill.

      • by matthewd (59896) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:43PM (#39502259)

        We just talked to a sales rep from Verango, they do just this type of system. Sunrun buys the panels and maintains them. Quoted us 27.5 cents/kwh to start in the first year to replace the 131%+ tier power that we are charged higher rates in California on.

        I created a spreadsheet to calculate our average cost/kwh over the last year in the upper tiers, and it worked out to 32.5 cents. So we could save 5 cents/kwh, or $31 per month if our usage stayed the same the last year. Not enough for me to bite, even if it costs us nothing. I'd rather find ways to reduce usage and cut our bill by more than that. We'd planned on doing that, which means the savings would be even smaller because our usage in the top tiers would be going down anyway.

        Incidentally, part of his pitch is that energy costs increase 6.9% per year. The 20 year solar contract locks in increases of 2.9%. So part of the argument is that over time, solar costs will go up at a much slower pace than electricity costs from PG&E. The only thing is, there has apparently been so much outrage over electricity costs in California that last year they got the highest tier rates lowered from around 40.4 cents/kwh to 34.2 cents/kwh, and the next highest tier also had a decrease from around 33 cents/kwh to around 31 cents/kwh. (Baseline and 101-130% tier rates went up a little) Which kind of negates the argument that energy costs go up every year, and reinforces the fact that energy companies are regulated by the government, so there are ultimately some political factors involved (aside from market forces, etc) in determining rates that are charged.

  • Chinese Subsidies (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Raptoer (984438)

    Maybe the tariffs are because the Chinese have been subsidizing their solar exports in violation of the trade agreements?

    Part of the problem will of course be that photovoltaics aren't reliable. Concentrated solar onto molten salt and wind are much more reliable than photovoltaics. Or we could just go nuclear.

    • by skids (119237)

      Maybe the tariffs are because the Chinese have been subsidizing their solar exports in violation of the trade agreements?

      That and them treading into the grey area between legitimate market activity and "dumping [wikipedia.org]"

      Part of the problem will of course be that photovoltaics aren't reliable.

      I assume you mean regular, in contrast to baseline power, rather than shoddy. Won't be a problem for some time yet, there's plenty of peak-shaving market left in the daytime hours.

    • by Chrontius (654879) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:52PM (#39501609)
      That practice of subsidized exports is called "dumping" and tends to continue only until domestic production in the importing area ends, and then the price is jacked up to make up for the losses.

      Basically, we're trying to win in the long term at the expense of the short term, instead of the opposite.
      • by Miros (734652)
        It's really tricky though. We are massively subsidizing our domestic solar industry as well to enable production at below the true cost because we care about it as a means of domestic energy production. In the end import taxes are not going to make up for the fact that it's cheaper and more efficient to make some of these things overseas now. Are the chinese playing fair? Probably not. Does it really matter in the long run? Probably not.
      • by Moryath (553296) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:01PM (#39501717)

        Tell that to the Republicans.

        On the one hand they scream (after MASSIVELY SUBSIDIZING their puppetmasters in the big oil companies and the corn lobby) about the subsidization of companies like Solyndra. They do this ignoring the fact that it didn't work because China was engaging in dumping and any trade with China is fundamentally unfair trade due to Chinese environmental-destruction and slave-labor practices.

        Then they complain about how Solar power is "not financially viable", and likewise for wind, geothermal, and pretty much every other renewable resource we've got. The Republicans gave the corn lobby a massive gift when Dumbya's administration outlawed MTBE and forced 10% corn ethanol into gas nationwide, despite the fact that corn ethanol is a net loss of energy (1.8 units used for every 1 unit produced) to make. The subsidization of the oil industry is orders of magnitude larger than any subsidization we've ever given to clean power.

        It's like when 50 years ago the Democrats became beholden to the Teamsters; in came big trucking and the subsidized interstate system, meanwhile rail shipping - far more energy efficient for long distances - got fucked up the ass having to eat the costs of maintaining the rail lines unsubsidized.

        If you see a government policy that's fucked up on energy, follow the money. Chances are, this decade there's a Koch hand behind it - the decade you choose you may find someone else.

        • by rickb928 (945187) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:11PM (#39501845) Homepage Journal

          MTBE, being water-soluble, was a mistake. Spills became uncontainable.

          Ethanol is a loser, but neither party has the will to turn off the subsidies, and every other ethanol source besides corn is a loser as well.

          Growing food for fuel is stupid.

        • by cpu6502 (1960974)

          Corn receives subsidies. But oil? That has subsidies?

          The interstates were Eisenhower's idea, after he tried to travel cross country on 1920-era roads (a near impossible task), and decided to copy Germany's autobahns. I don't know why you place the credit on Democrats.

          >>>when Dumbya's administration outlawed MTBE

          Yeah. Outlawing poison. What a horrible thing to do. President Idiot deserves a lot of blame for stupid stuff, but this is not one of them.

        • Re:Chinese Subsidies (Score:5, Interesting)

          by squidflakes (905524) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:24PM (#39502017) Homepage

          Yeah, energy policy in the U.S. is amazingly fucked.

          One thing that really gets me, there are enough geothermal hot-spots in the US to provide a huge amount of power, especially if the R&D were funded like drilling in the 60's and 70's. Even better, we've already got a huge amount of operational know-how and technology from that very investment that could be adapted to geothermal power use. The basic hole drilling technology is the same, and only small modifications would be needed to bring us around to closed cycle steam/water loops and we already know how to turn hot steam in to electrical power.

        • Re:Chinese Subsidies (Score:4, Informative)

          by Elder Entropist (788485) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @07:00PM (#39502459)

          corn ethanol is a net loss of energy (1.8 units used for every 1 unit produced) to make.

          I'm not the biggest fan of corn ethanol, but this is a very outdated myth from a study in the early 1970s that people keep repeating. We've gotten much more efficient and corn ethanol is now 1.5 to 1.8 units produced for every 1 unit of energy put in. That's still way worse than most other biofuels, but it isn't a net energy loss.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          MTBE is a horrible chemical and should be banned (shouldn't have ever been used int the first place).
      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        >>> then the price is jacked up to make up for the losses.

        Please cite some companies that did this "dumping" and then raising of prices.

    • by Yvan256 (722131) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:10PM (#39501835) Homepage Journal

      Or we could just go nuclear.

      From orbit. That's the only way to be sure.

  • by RyoShin (610051) <tukaro.gmail@com> on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:44PM (#39501535) Homepage Journal

    The people who are the most likely to be impacted by high energy prices, the poor, are the least likely to benefit from the solar rebate scheme because they lack the capital to pay for the installation.

    While I'm not big of the idea of "the long tail" or "trickle down economics", I would think this would help the poor in a small manner. By those able to afford it having solar panels, the power companies have less demand for their energy and so the poor are less likely to see an increase in power prices (and, rarely, a slight reduction). This is, of course, assuming things like the able don't have their own, separate power station from the poor, enough able people install them to actually make some sort of dent, etc.

    Even if they get no impact from it, "the poor still can't afford them" doesn't seem like a valid mark against such a program; I didn't see anyone complaining that the tax breaks to those who bought hybrids were bad because the poor still couldn't afford hybrids.

    • by Miros (734652)
      Photo-voltaic panels are not cheap enough or efficient enough to be a truly economic means of producing electricity. The subsidies potentially enable economies of scope and scale to the point where it would be economical. Long way to go though still.
      • by RyoShin (610051)

        I'm not talking about the able/rich or power plants producing electricity from solar for the poor, I'm talking about decreased demand on the power plants due to the able/rich not needing as much because of their own solar panels. I'm no power station expert, but less stress on the plant likely means lower overall costs which could be passed on to the remaining customers in the form of slight reduction in cost (or, much more likely in my pessimistic mind, a delay in the rising of costs.)

        • by Bert64 (520050)

          Or an increase in costs, because thanks to lots of users running solar panels there is now far more variation in demand...
          Sure the demand on hot sunny days might be lower, but during the hours of darkness it will be just as high as it ever was, so you still need to keep the same capacity available in the coal/gas/nuclear plants.

      • by skids (119237) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:12PM (#39501857) Homepage

        Not too long of a way to go. Basically they need to get the panels + installation down another 25-50% (and technologically this is not insurmountable) but in addition to that, they have to do so with something resembling a respectable profit margin. RIght now companies are running things close to the wire trying to compete, and that's not sustainable on a financial plane.

        Of course, if the price of competing energy goes up (if there is a recoveing economy, it will) then that makes the competitive point for solar easier to acheive. In some local markets, solar is already cheaper.

        • Basically they need to get the panels + installation down another 25-50%

          A good way to do this is to standardize the mounting brackets, and then change building codes so the brackets are required to be pre-installed on all newly constructed buildings. As prices drop, they can install the panels cheaply because the brackets are already there. This will be much cheaper than retrofitting panels onto an existing roof.

    • by Moses48 (1849872)

      Poor also don't have the money to get the subsidy for the Tesla cars. They're missing out on like 10 thousand dollars!!!!

    • by poity (465672) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:59PM (#39501683)

      Firstly to address the article, one is a start-up loan guarantee to offset the risks in surmounting what is a huge barrier to entry, the other is a continued subsidy to aid an established industry. Sure they're both in the same vein of using public funds to bolster industry, but not quite comparable beyond that, are they? Continued subsidy of established industry is one of the major arguments made by those who are against US agricultural subsidies, and they make a reasonable point regarding the negative impact it has to the outside world. Many countries feel justified to place tariffs on US agricultural products because of this.

      Now to address your post, let's look at the not so apparent inconsistency in the rhetoric surrounding the motivations behind the subsidy. If the Chinese government indeed only wanted to make renewable energy more affordable for the average Chinese person, as many say is the sole motivation, it could very well have implemented a tax rebate policy with low-income allowances for Chinese consumers (as it's typically done in the US, at least the rebate part) -- and if fearing the money drain to imported panels, they could even have made "for use on domestically made panels only" a condition for such rebates/allowances. Under such a policy, imported solar panels would find it difficult to compete in the Chinese market, but it wouldn't be as big of a deal. That's not what happened. By continuing to subsidize the already established manufacturers directly, it places anti-competitive behavior behind the rather more difficult-to-assail rhetoric of "making energy affordable for the average Chinese person." Unfortunately, this rhetorical sleight of hand is able to misdirect many people.

      • by RyoShin (610051)

        and if fearing the money drain to imported panels, they could even have made "for use on domestically made panels only" a condition for such rebates/allowances

        Do we do that? If not, why not? It would seem to solve the supposed issue without this tariff. You want cheap panels, fine, no rebate for you.

        Of course, if difference in panel price > rebate/tax break allowance, that doesn't matter much, I suppose.

        • by poity (465672)

          Well doing that would still be anti-competitive, less so than directly subsidizing the manufacturers since it doesn't really affect exports, but anti-competitive nonetheless. If the US did it, I'm sure other countries would definitely complain, but if it did it as a retreat from direct subsidies, it may be seen as an easier pill to swallow (hmm, that's giving me evil conspiracy ideas haha). In the US, Japanese hybrid cars are the most popular. This is because rebates are less biased, and they stimulate a se

    • Taxed through inflation, income, sales taxes to pay wealthier people to put panels on their roofs. It's generally morally sickening, but no more sickening than the rest of the corruption.

      I didn't see anyone complaining that the tax breaks to those who bought hybrids were bad because the poor still couldn't afford hybrids.

      That's purely because you are incapable of using Google.

      e.g.
      http://97.65.137.56/202194/ron-paul-right-again-electric-car-subsidies-transferring-wealth-from-the-poor-to-the-rich [97.65.137.56]

  • It's embarassing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Miros (734652) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:45PM (#39501545)
    To the government that the US can no longer sustain a competitive domestic solar panel industry. This was predicted in shockingly accurate detail by HBS researchers 3 years ago. [hbr.org] Protectionism is only going to make it worse -- amazing that these ideas still fly.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What's the other option? Let China do the same they done with rare earth metals? Factories and mining operations takes time to setup, especially with the red tape that exists in the US. Cheap panels now can mean expensive panels later (or worst, supply shortages). The free market only works when both sides are trying to maximize profit. While generally true, China, who has a heavy hand in it's economy, can easy change things to benefit China at the cost of less profit.

      At the local economy, we have laws to p

    • by loufoque (1400831)

      Why is it embarassing? To each their specialty. The US conceives and designs stuff, China produces it.

      • by Miros (734652)
        Tell that to the US manufacturing sector
      • Re:It's embarassing (Score:5, Interesting)

        by NoobixCube (1133473) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:09PM (#39501809) Journal

        The US designs stuff, now? Pretty much everything in my house is designed by a Japanese or Thai or Korean company. A US company might have designed the basic idea for some of it more than 60 years ago, but nothing new or interesting comes out of America today.

        • Apple

        • by TheSync (5291)

          Pretty much everything in my house is designed by a Japanese or Thai or Korean company.

          Obviously you don't have an iPad or a movie in your house :)

          However you should also keep in mind that even foreign companies have US R&D teams (Sony [sony.com], LG [lg.com], etc.)

          And of course Intel is based in the US (although it also has global R&D teams), and I know that ARM has a large presence in Austin [austinnovation.com] even though it is a UK-based firm.

    • That was a very interesting article, and is surprisingly apt even three years later. Thank you very much for the link.
  • by beamdriver (554241) <beamdriver@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @05:57PM (#39501659) Homepage
    ...their PV panels for less than it costs to make them forever?

    Once they drive our domestic PV manufacturers out of business they'll be free to charge what the market will bear.

  • And on display for everyone to watch.

    Are we getting close to stopping this yet? Apparently not.

  • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:14PM (#39501905) Journal
    I do not see the anomaly. the market for solar power cells was not driven by any big need for solar power production, and so it all hinged on subsidies to the producers, be they the producers of solar infrastructure or the installers/managers. Moreover, when the size of the market was small the impact on energy bills at the wider level was negligible, like having a 0.01c tax surcharge.

    Fast forward to today, and things are quite expectedly different: the installed base is BIG, the subsidies are a botload of money, and the shift between the have and havenots has widened. On the "have" side, big producers of energy receiving subsidies, which given the expenditure were well off to start with, all the infrastructure managers (politician), and the lobbyists who have to be paid to make sure the merry go round keeps going. On the "have not" side, traditional energy producers and especially network managers, who have to justify the expenditures required to adjust to a wildly varying power source (backup generators, more transmission lines, etc); small businesses and individuals, who do not have the clout to say that they do not want or can afford to pay money on top of electricity simply because someone goofed ten years back. And goofed they did: If the level of subsidies would be cut to the level rendering viable only the latest and cheapest generation of solar plants, the "stranded asset" problem would be enormous, since may if not all of the older plants would tank.
    the saving grace for the old solars is simple and crude: since most of the installations were financed through bank loans, and banks are the "little princes" of western governments, non one will force the situation, unless the taxpayers really get upset.
  • Screw the subsidies (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DCFusor (1763438) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:23PM (#39501997) Homepage
    I mean, they're nice and if you can get them, do it. But! I went off-grid in '80 or so, when subsidies were hard to find, solar was $7/watt for panels or more, and it still paid off. I just doubled what I have here so as to have enough extra to charge my new Volt too - and it's a pretty big deal to just tell the gasoline man to get lost entirely - more panels is also more times the house system needs no backup. Finally there. !00% NOT Chinese stuff, though I have no axe to grind with them as a people. I just prefer poly xtal big, thick, reliable, conservative cells, that's all - I've got them 30 years old at still 80% of original spec. Even those are down to 3.50/watt or so now, made in USA if you care (I don't much, I'm just trying to get the most kWh/buck). It was hard at first, but built good habits of no waste, and now its fantastic - and no monthly bills...just internet. I got a much better subsidy thusly - I bought raw land and homesteaded on it. Power companies are in a lot of places, in charge of enforcing the building permit and inspections regimes. So, if you're not and never become a customer - well, my buildings are taxed as barns and sheds even though I obviously live here. In today's tax environment - lookee, no property taxes to speak of.
  • Having known and worked with a number of people in the alternative energy industry I can assure you that they've long since stopped being scrappy little upstarts. They're big business and even big oil has entered alternative industry. They're not stupid. They know there's a ton of money in the industry and a massive amount more to be made.

    As for the Chinese, they do have a propensity for dumping goods on other countries. It's something the EU has responded a number of times in the past. And of course a lot

  • * Partisan opinion: Solar Power Is Booming â" Obama administration is killing it

    * Partisan opinion masquerading as fact: Solar Power Is Booming â" Why Do We Want To Kill It?

    Is this the new Slashdot TV: Fair and Balanced [foxnews.com]?

  • it's inefficient (Score:2, Insightful)

    by superwiz (655733)
    It's already reaching the limits of theoretical efficiency given the current harvesting mechanism. And yet it's not profitable. Money isn't just some abstraction. It represents resources which go into production and distribution of the thing. If it's not profitable, then it's an environmental as well as financial net loss. More resources go in than come out. If something cannot be made profitable even at peak efficiency, it represents a net waste of natural resources.
    • by Lumpy (12016)

      It's not profitable if you are trying to make money by selling the energy you make from it.

      But I dont give a rats ass about that. I use it to reduce my expenses. I make up 50% of my electrical use in solar. I hope to increase that in the next 4 years to be 110% of my electrical use in solar.

      Why 110%? so I can have a reserve, maybe even be wasteful. I might shoot for 150% and buy an electric hot tub.

      The companies selling quality panels are doing just fine. In fact they are quite profitable. What is not

  • by masonc (125950) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @06:38PM (#39502187) Homepage

    I hear this same argument all the time here in Anguilla where I live. "we don't want solar unless it reduces the cost of electricity for the poor man".
    It's nonsense because solar is not going to drop the wholesale price of electricity, the differential from the price of NG or Nuke is never going to be substantial enough. Electricity in America is very very cheap. There is little point in trying to reduce the cost further, it is mostly administration charges at this stage.

    The reason countries like the USA and other are promoting solar is because it is a renewable source. OIl and other fossil fuels are filthy and news of their imminent demise is not exaggerated. They will run out. America has a responsibility as a first world nation to reduce emissions.

    Turning to renewable sources allows more time before the end of oil and for the technologies to develop. You can't expect we can transition once there is a crisis. Unless we start now and incentivize the use of RE, we will never get to a point where we can manage without fossil fuels. Great strides are being made and the discovery of grid based storage at economical cost will be a game changer.

    Another reason to promote RE sources is energy independence. If countries that are not in the Middle East could survive on domestic production and renewable sources, the politics of the world would change dramatically, and the price of energy would drop, spawning another economic boom. At present, the US public is crying about high gasoline prices caused by geopolitical issues, but at the same time complaining about subsidies for renewable sources aimed at developing solutions to this issue. And blaming Obama for both.

    Let's make this very clear. Oil will get more and more expensive until it runs out, the planet will warm in the mean time from CO2, and there will be instability in the Middle East and Venezuela. Or you can believe the Forbes and Fox News stories that tell you the opposite.

    I live in a country that has probably the highest electricity costs in the world, 43c/KWh, unlimited sunshine, and refuses to allow people to install solar. Figure that policy out. Very soon we will not be a viable state because of high energy costs, but there is still no vision or will to move out of the dark ages.

    Be glad you at least have the right to install solar or wind or whatever.

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