LA Times’ attack on solar gives off more heat than light

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Speculators and rip-off merchants, modern-day snake oil peddlers backed by Wall Street banksters… that's how the solar industry's businesses were characterized in an LA Times piece last week clearly written to ruffle a few feathers.

Taxpayers, ratepayers will fund California solar plants, shrieked the headline, as if uncovering clean energy's dirty little secret: that the modest levels of solar development in the United States have been supported by tax revenues and electric utility rates.

“Driven by the Obama administration's vision of clean power and energy independence, the rush to build large-scale solar plants across the Southwest has created an investors' dream in the desert,” it says.

The main thrust of the piece is that “critics say” banks, utilities and solar companies are ripping off the public. So who are these critics?

Exhibit A is an anonymous county official with a wonderfully confused rendering of the witch's words in the Snow White fairytale: “Solar developers would be saying, 'Mirror, mirror on the ground, look at all the money I found!'”

Although the fairytale analogy does seem somewhat far-fetched, it does seem to cast the industry into stereotyped goodies and baddies from a Christmas pantomime.

Americans love to make money and they applaud others for earned prosperity. There's nothing wrong with that scenario, until you introduce politics. Depending on which side of the aisle you support, you're either a gun-slinging all-action entrepreneurial hero, or you're a gun-slinging good-for-nothing western cowboy hustling whatever stock comes your way.

The LA Times article might have you believe gold-diggers are swarming over the lands west of the Rockies, looking to make a fast buck from the sun's rays.

The comment from the “county official” struck me in particular since the piece seemed to focus its criticism on utility-scale solar.

Most developers in the US are nothing like on the scale of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., General Electric, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and technology giant Google Inc who are apparently creaming off tax credits at the public's expense.

I asked a developer in a neighbouring state what he made of the LA Times' characterization of his colleagues in California. Paul Spencer is president and founder of the Clean Energy Collective, a community solar developer in Colorado.

“They have taken an extreme view of looking at only the projects that are incented the most.  The vast majority, maybe 90% of all the solar projects in America, do not have the level of incentives that they are purporting.

“The main incentive out there is the Investment Tax Credit of 30%. That's a big one. That's fair.

“But large scale subsidies like government-backed loans are not the case on the vast majority of projects in the United States.”

Spencer reckons that the ITC has forced down the cost of solar, driving down the cost of the subsidy to the taxpayer.

“The price of solar has probably dropped to 60% since the ITC was put in place.

“It started out as around a US$3 a watt subsidy, whereas today it might be US$1.25. It's gone down substantially.

“It also creates a more stable power source for the future. Everyone knows that fossil fuels are going to be more expensive in future. It makes sense for the public to be smart and preemptively develop technologies that won't cost more money than it costs us today.”

One “factoid” particularly drew my attention almost as much as the Sleeping Beauty quote is the US$13bn distributed under the cash grants “approved as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package”.

Presumably, the reporters are referring to the 1603 cash grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 which handed out a small chunk of the US$772.8bn to renewables. It's a neat trick to make you think that solar developers are chomping victory cigars as they gaze out over fields of panels handed out to them for free by the government.

But what LAT doesn't tell you is this little statistic that is available at the end of the Treasury's website: wind projects took US$9.216bn of this US$13bn. It's up to the reader to decide whether this is spin deliberately designed to mislead.

But to say that the grants have now been replaced by the tax credits is just plain wrong. Grants were introduced in lieu of an already existing tax credit when revenues for traditional ITC investors plunged in 2008.

The piece does not venture near residential programmes, such as the California Solar Initiative, with a programme budget of US$2,167 million over 10 years, which had to have a cash injection last year to have any hope of reaching its 1.9GW target by 2016.

But consumers like this programme [see approval chart].

Latest figures show 1,322MW installed at an average cost of US$7.18 per watt for a system smaller than 10kW.

Is that value for money? Not by the metrics used by the LA Times. But it all depends on what you value: benefits to the local economy, consumers, jobs … oh, and a clean and free fuel source if you care about such minor details as energy security and climate change.

But as the article points out, the days of utility-scale solar power plants will last as long as the current projects take to build.

Michael Florio, formerly of the Division of Ratepayers Advocates and new recruit at the California Public Utilities Commission, last year revealed that Abengoa's 250MW CSP solar project in the Mojave would cost ratepayers at least US$1.25 billion more over 25 years.

Florio went head-to-head with the commission's president, Michael Peevy, when he tried to vote down the approval for Abengoa.

Given the scant numbers of “critics” in the article – one anonymous and the other, Powers, who appears to write for an oil and gas trade publication – it would have been good to hear from more heavyweight critics.

Yes, it's true that these projects would not be viable without public funding. Yes, it's true that they are expensive for ratepayers. Yes, of course we hear of solar being a good return – 12% – 15% – until the Investment Tax Credit runs out, but there are so many more economic angles that benefit the wider community.

You would have thought these “boondoggles” were some sort of Wall St bailout without any direct or indirect benefit for taxpayers, ratepayers and all the other ordinary folk who are baffled by sensational reporting on the solar industry.

Needless to say the article provoked a keen response from, BrightSource, one of the developers mentioned in the piece.

Joe Desmond, former California Energy Commissioner and now BrightSource's senior vice president of government affairs and communications, pointed to an NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) report, 60 Years of Energy Incentives – Analysis of Federal Expenditures for Energy Development. That report shows that the oil and gas industries have been the main beneficiaries of US$837bn in government support between 1950 and 2010.

This is a part of the whole story that the LA Times omitted…

“California utilities don’t earn profits on fuel costs, such as natural gas. Instead, they are passed through to ratepayers without a markup. Natural gas is a commodity, its price is volatile and it is projected to increase over time. In contrast, once a solar plant is constructed, the fuel – sun – is free as long as the plant operates. Imagine buying a car that, with proper maintenance, would run 30 to 50 years and the gasoline was always free. (You get the idea.),” said Desmond in response to the LA Times article.

History will be the ultimate judge of whether utility scale solar was a brilliant idea or an expensive experiment.

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