The Pocono Raceway, which is just 30 miles from my house, is installing a 3 MW solar project. They are "going green" the press releases and newspaper articles write. The Scranton Times gives the cost of the project as 18 million dollars. Their article is completely misleading regarding this project.
Let's look at some facts. How much electricity is this project (aka boondoggle) going to make and what is it going to cost. To understand electricity you need to understand a few conversions which only require basic algebra. 3 MW refers to maximum power output of the project, this would occur only midsummer when the sun is at it's most direct angle to the solar panels with a cloudless sky. Capacity factor refers to the average power output over a year. Most typical electrical plants, like coal, nuclear and natural gas, have capacity factors of 80-100% per year. Meaning if the power plant is rated as a typical medium-sized 1,000 MW, it will have an average output of about 800 MW per year. Solar in the Northeast US has a capacity factor of 12-15% according to this Wikpedia article, scroll to the bottom.
At 13% average output, on a yearly basis this 3 MW facility will produce a "paltry" .4 MW (400 kW) of electricity, or about as much one 2 MW wind turbines operating at 25% capacity. The wind turbine will cost about $3 Million while the solar farm costs about $18 million or 6x as much in capital construction costs!!!
How much electricity will this Pocono solar actually make? We must convert power to energy, which means we must convert MW to MWhrs or kWhrs which is how electricity is bought by the consumer. Here in Pa we pay about 11 cents per kWhour for electricity. There are 1,000 kWhrs in one MWhr. There are 8760 hours in a year.
3 MW maximum power output times 13% actual output times 8760 hours in a year = 3,416 MW hours per year times 1,000 = 3,416,000 kWhrs per year. That is the amount of electricity this farm will create in a year.
What about the cost? The Scranton Times gives the cost as $18,000,000. The solar panels will last between 20 and 30 years, let's use 25 years as the expected life of the farm. We will not consider decommissioning and disposal or cleaning costs. Solar panels must be regularly cleaned or the buildup of dirt will significantly decrease their efficiency. Read this article to get the dirt on solar panel dirt.
Most people have no understanding that there are no private solar farms. No one person would ever be so stupid to construct a solar farm and then sell the electricity (although there certainly could be value to solar if you live far from the grid and have no other choice). Only a Government would be so dumb to do something stupid like building a solar farm to supply commercial electricity! Here is why.
If the Pocono Raceway built this solar farm they could take out a 18 million dollar loan at 6.5% for 25 years. Of course no bank would ever loan anyone money for this boondoggle. So the Government will, in the form of Federal and State tax credits and renewable energy mandates. An 18 million dollar loan at 6.5% for 25 years would create a yearly payment of 1.45 million dollar per year to pay off the loan, that is without the maintenance costs.
So we will pay 1.45 million dollars per year to create 3.4 million kWhours per year. Divide 1.45/3.4 to result in a cost of 42 cents per kWhour. This 42 cents is not the final cost, because there is the maintenance costs, and new transmission lines which must be constructed and also we must consider this plant will only have an average output of 13%, because it never works at night, it will only have full output when the sun is directly overhead, and the frequent clouds even on sunny days will decrease its' output, that's how you get to 13%.
What that means is that the farm will need constant backup from the reliable, traditional power sources. I can absolutely guarantee there will not be even one PennaPower&Light employee laid off due to the kWhrs created here, in fact there will likely be extra employees hired to administrate the new solar department. In addition to paying the costs for the solar farm, we will have to pay the construction costs and salaries of the traditional power plants. There may be a savings in fuel, but even that is disputable because of integration issues, which are beyond the scope of this posts. Look here for more on integration.
Average solar output(capacity factor) is only 15% per year across the US.
Go Here and click on the Electric Capacity and find that for 2009 there was 603 MW's of installed Solar.
Then go back and click on Electricity Net Generation and you will that the 603 MW's produced 808,000 Thousand kWh's which is 808,000 MW's. Note: You will often see Renewable statistics in kWhs instead of MWhs because the output is so tiny.
There are 8760 hours in a year. So 808,000 MWhrs per year, divide by 8,760 hours to yield = 92 MW's. That is what the output of all those solar panels would be if they were working 24/7, like a nuclear plants of just about what other forms of traditional generation output. Now divide the 92 MW output by the 603MW "rating" of all solar plants and your get a pitiful 15%! So another way of looking at it is the solar plant only works at full output about 1 out of every 7 hours through the year. And the price is at least 6x more than traditional.
And what about the 25 acres of land to produce .4 MW's of electricity yearly. The Susquehanna Nuclear plant at Berwick that powers this computer is on about 200 acres of land. (they list it as much higher but that includes an enormous vegetated buffer zone). The green solar produces .016 MW/acre while the nuclear plant produces 12 MW per acres, or 750 times as much electricity per acre as the solar.
I know that a true greenie will never get this far and will never open up excel to check the math, who cares about a few details when saving the world and following the crowd is all that matters. The costs? We'll just let our grandkids worry about the cost and the clean up of this enormous mess.
Here is what is real crazy about all this. We have the capital costs for the solar plant at 42 cents/kWh, and we have to add yearly maintenance on that. The payment is 1.42 million dollars per year, you would think maintenance is at least $100,000/year. That is probably low, because you probably need almost 2 full time men, so let’s go with 150K/year which adds another 5 cents/kWhr to yield 47cents/kWh.
But that is only the start. Because the solar plant does not replace any REAL power plant, the only costs savings are in fuel, and that is arguable. Coal costs about 2-4 cents per kWh, while NatGas about 5-8 cents per kWh. So that is all you are “saving” (except dearest Mother Earth of course). So in essence you are paying 47 cents to “save” 2-8 cents or 5 cents average, MEANING Solar is about 10x more expensive than an average of coal and nat gas!!!
Yet, go to theoildrum.com and you will find posts and comments, written by seaminly intelligent people, that state that solar just keeps coming down in price and VERY SOON will be competetive.
Now here is the real problem. Say your electric bill is $130/month. Most people have no understanding that in actuality their household electricity usage is only 1/3 of what they use in actuality. Because in actuality, 1/3 of electricity produced is for residential, 1/3 commercial (stores and building) and 1/3 industrial. We ALL use services and products that are created from electricity. So in reality, your electric bill is not $130/month, it is actually 3 times that or about $400/month. So when people think they are willing to pay a little more for green energy (i have no idea why anyone would want to, and it ain’t green), they are confused, because the GREENIES only talk about “we are the world” when in there interests, but when talking electricity they only talk household, they always leave out the important facts! But who cares, the liberal environmentalists aren’t fact checkers anyway.