Report: Solar Is Way Worse Than Other Renewables

Report: Solar Is Way Worse Than Other Renewables

Solar is an established -- and constantly improving -- form of renewable power. But according to a new report by the European Union its economic impact is incredibly costly, and far worse than wind and even hydroelectric power.

The report, you see, considered not just the capital and operating costs of power plants, but their economic impacts in terms of climate change, pollution and resource depletion. That might sound tough, but there's plenty of data out there to base such calculations on.

The report writers calculated a levelised costs -- the estimated economic cost per megawatt-hour of electricity generated using each technology. And it didn't end well for solar. According to the analysis, new coal and natural gas plants cost just over $US64 per megawatt-hour; onshore wind $US102; nuclear power $US115; and utility-scale solar plants $US127.

Why? It seems, according to Technology Review, to be because of the manufacturing of solar cells. Most cells are manufactured in China and, there, electricity is incredibly carbon-intensive. Combine that with the fact that the cells use important metal resources, and the overall economic impact isn't good.

It's worth noting that the report was based on data from 2012 though -- that's just how long these kinds of reports take to arrive. So things could, possibly, have changed in the last two years. Though probably not by much. [European Commission via Technology Review]

Picture: AP Photo/Jerry McBride

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    So, solar is bad because of ...... coal!

      Probably because of Hydro electricity and coal given the three gorges dam generates a huge amount of energy there and they have other dams that produce a buttload too. But they can't use solar themselves because of the smog from all their factories, and China doesn't care that it is single-handedly wrecking the planet...

        "and China doesn't care that it is single-handedly wrecking the planet..."
        Well that's not exactly true, China is basically leading the world in solar production now, and are phasing out coal as fast as they can (which is to say, no coal in Beijing within 6 years).

          What? They aren't phasing coal out, they are closing their dirties coal power plants and replacing them with cleaner coal power plants. No coal in Beijing within 6 years? They are banning new coal power plants in certain provinces that suffer very high air pollution.

          But phasing out? Not sure where you are getting that info from.


    Meh..! I don't have a guilty conscience. When we installed ours, the consensus was that we were doing the right thing, and our power bill is substantially lower for it..! :)

      That is right - at the end of the day, with my solar panels I'm doing it because it saves my family money over the long run.....and even makes us some money too!

      Have a chat with my father please. Guy lives in a wonderful area, that when it is sunny, is sunny on his house at all times. That roof is exposed to sunlight at all hours of the suns day. But he refuses to make the jump. Even after a $1200 power bill, he just refuses.

      It's maddening.

        It took a few seconds to convince my father, once I showed him the calculations on how much money he could make from solar panels. He hasn't paid a bill in 4 years - he's hit the payback point by now and any money he makes is pure tax-free cream.

    might want to note the study was on economic impact and not environmental impact. People only really care about money.

      Agreed. The fact the report goes into the carbon intensity and resource depletion of solar cell manufacturer and the states that the environmental cost of coal makes wind cheaper doesn't have any relevance at at.

    Interesting they talk about utility scale solar, what about grid connected domestic solar?

    The big difference is that land is free as people put it on their own homes, and capital cost is spread between the house owners that choose to have it.
    Essentially, the utility company now only has an operational cost which is good as with supply this will drop.
    This also reduces their own capital expenditure as the load on their own power generation facilities is decreased substantially.

    Last edited 23/10/14 9:00 am

      No... it is so much more complicated than that.
      There are numerous operational limitations on power plants. They can't just flick a switch and turn the plant of when it isn't needed. The station I work at takes around 6 hours from the time they ignite the burners to the time the turbine reaches full load. Not including the labour costs to start the unit, it costs over $40k in fuels (from a cold start).
      There are bypass options available, which means they essentially redirect the steam away from the turbine instead of through it. But this incurs the costs of running the plant and the constant supply of fuel, for zero earnings. This occurs rarely, but only for short periods of time.
      The other significant limitation is that plants can only lower the generation capacity by so much (every plant is different). Here we can lower the 2 units to around 150MWh each from their max capacity of 265MWh each.
      So thinking that just because you don't need as much power on a day to day basis means lower costs for the generation companies is largely false. If anything, the costs are going up because the generation requirements are becoming much more volatile (mainly due to wind farms). All of this in a network that has substantially more capacity than is needed.
      To give you a rough idea of the cost to generate 1MWh, it costs us approx $55 which is only slightly above the average for Australian generation assets. Now keep an eye on the AEMO website which shows the states market pool prices and this will give you some idea of what is happening in the Australian generation market these days.

      Last edited 23/10/14 10:18 am

        I was probably talking more bigger picture pie in the sky, fewer power plants overall being needed not an hour by hour load difference.

    That aside. Environmental impacts of coal and gas will kill us. Economic impact of solar will not.

    Last edited 23/10/14 9:02 am

      Looking forward to this but Abbott will probably shut it down. Because not Team Australia as in not supporting coal the energy of the future.

      Energy isn't about butterflies and sunsets. Energy is about seeing and feeling the results. The government knows this which is why they won't stop until every city is covered in that New Delhi haze. Waking up in the morning to grey skies. Every breath of that thick air to remind your lungs are working. Those tumors are not evil, they are a result of real energy being absorbed by the body. Coal also creates jobs. People are living too long so jobs are not cycled quick enough for a growing population. Add some of that fine grey energy in the air to weed out the weak and make way for the youth of tomorrow.

    So the coal cost of manufacturing solar cells is greater than the coal cost of burning coal? Bullshit! And where is the cost of destroying life on earth, as is happening as a direct result of burning coal?

      mind blowing idea for them... make solar at the cozt of coal thn use freshly made solar panels to make more of them... holy batmen!

    The analysis is of a "new" coal and gas power plant, wind, nuclear, solar etc. That's a fair analysis when comparing the "new" costs of setting up the plant, but there's no mention of the ongoing costs.

    I'd be interested in knowing what happened after they extended the analysis to the costs of both building the plants, and then generating the electricity for - say - five years. Surely the wind, nuclear and solar plants would then leap ahead, given that they would require little - if any - carbon based inputs for maintenance or actual generation purposes.

    This same type of analysis can be used to compare the value of buying a new prius against continuing to use an older petrol based car and it's worth taking into consideration, but you can't just seperate the actual use of the plants/cars with the cost of manufacturing. The carbon footprint eventually consists of both.

    So when was the last time a bird flew into a solar panel and died or the water run off from a solar panel never made it to the creeks and creatures died because there was no water. Each Renewable energy has it's place, and China has a tariff on that dirty brown coal now so maybe things are improving. We have an abundance of solar energy and so it's now just a case of improving the technology to be more cost effective and efficient. Hey and maybe that 'coal power being used to create solar panels' argument won't stand in the future as solar power is eventually used to create more solar panels.

    So Solar costs twice as much as coal, but doesn't have all the negative downsides, like potentially ending our civilisation?
    Sounds reasonable to me, I would have expected it to cost much more in raw dollar terms.
    If Solar had a more massive uptake, then the cost-gap should close.
    Also, the environmental cost is mainly (according to this report) because the panels are manufactured in China where dirty power is the norm.

    Last edited 23/10/14 9:41 am

    Ok before i read this report, im gona take a stab and say it was done by right wing people, probably hired by the coal industry or this government, of to read it now, then ill see whats what.

    well i was way wrong

    Last edited 23/10/14 10:23 am

    Hello, Giz? I want to register a complaint. I just read the comments thread on an article, and every single comment was reasonable and insightful. What happened? Where did the Giz audience go? I come here to read uninformed ranting! I want my money back. Oh.

      You don't pay any money. You should ask them for a job instead. ;)

        I know I don't pay any money. I still want it back. Is that so hard to understand?

    This focuses on photoelectric cells, but heat exchange solar is starting to gain traction in some places. It's a much less materials-intensive method of generating power.

    Unforunately the survey is totally out date due to the rapid change in renewables pricing, as production and use ramp up, example of solar pricing:
    "Global solar-panel prices fell from $1.34 per watt in 2011 to 67 cents last year, and prices are expected to fall to 64 cents this year. Prices are expected to end 2016 at 59 cents per watt."

    and nuclear power could be way way cheaper than the $US102 stated. Its only because of the continued stupidity of the vested interests to use uranium and plutonium (because the good olde US of A want to make BOMBS to kill us all) that we have these ridiculous huge monoliths of power stations rather than small fully factory built containerised reactors that run for 30+ years and don't need refuelling in their life time and use the original fuel of the dawn of the atomic age.. thorium.

    Why "probably not by much"? The price of solar PV has fallen by at least 30 per cent since 2012, which would make it cheaper than either onshore wind or nuclear, and installation figures (rapid growth for PV, stability for wind, nothing for nuclear) reflect that.

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