Full disclosure. I work for a company which manufactures generator sets for power generation using reciprocating engines. The fuel for these engines in the United States is typically natural gas, which can be provided by underground wells, or fuels from other sources such as gas or liquids produced from renewable sources. However I’m not at all opposed to solar generation, or wind generation or other forms of renewable energy. I wish to correct some statements by Mr. Lewis with regard to solar generation.
I will avoid discussing the location of a solar installation in Kent County but rather focus on the technology aspects. Mr. Lewis describes Ms. Reeder’s statements about the dependability and cleanliness of solar as “ludicrous”, in particular with regard to the fact that the materials used to build solar panels contain rare earths, are mined in a dirty way, etc. In fact Mr. Lewis’ computer no doubt contains such materials, as does his phone, his refrigerator, his car, and many other things all of us own. Such materials are sourced not only from developing countries and China but from countries around the world. He describes solar’s dependability as “laughable” because the sun goes down and clouds pass by. He misses the point. The sun quite reliably rises every day, and the angle of the sun changes seasonally and weather happens, both of which cause the actual generation percentage to be low, but these are well known characteristics. There are no moving parts in a solar panel, which makes it quite reliable by itself. Once past the panel(s) there are inverters which convert the power to AC, which are typically “solid state” devices with only simple moving parts such as cooling fans, and after that point on the electrical side, the technology is basically the same as for the gas turbines he mentions and other generation technologies, in the form of transformers, switchgear, and substations and transmission lines.
Mr. Lewis states that solar power “always has to be backed up 100% by other generation techniques”. Let’s just be clear – adding solar power does not necessarily mean building NEW generation to back it up. Typically, solar is backed up by existing generation plants, which are simply turned down or off when the sun is shining. Yes, flexibility is needed to cope with the variation of renewable generation from solar and wind, but utilities do this for a living – they manage their generation portfolio to essentially keep the lights on and the power flowing. I agree with him that high penetrations of renewable energy can be problematic when managing the power generation grid, and the 30% penetration threshold into the market which he cites is arguably accurate, but according to the US EIA, the solar penetration in the US was 2.6% of the annual power generation in the US in 2019, the most recent data I could easily find. It is rising, but we have quite a ways to go to reach 30%. Utilities recognize this issue and new plants they build (not necessarily to back up solar!) are much more flexible than older plants.
Mr. Lewis then states that the cleanup of solar panels when they have reached their end life, is problematic due to toxic metals they are made with, etc. I don’t disagree that some of the materials with which solar panels are made are toxic (silver, lead, cadmium, etc.), but I would mention that when one thinks of the billions of things we commonly dispose of today which contain integrated circuits and silicon based electronics, as well as home use batteries, auto batteries, etc. that the management and control of solar panel waste disposal or recycling is a manageable situation, especially when compared to nuclear waste disposal, and compared to the environmental damage that ongoing combustion of fossil fuels is causing. I would disagree that panel disposal is unsolvable. Perhaps “under-addressed” today, but this can be legislated. I would also mention comparatively that disposal and cleanup of coal-fired power plants is no picnic either, environmentally.
Finally, Mr. Lewis rails about the cost of solar power. Solar power is a relatively new technology, at least in mass application on the time scale since AC power was first developed in about 1890. As such, due to its newness, and due to lack of economies of scale, it has been expensive. Governments have, over the last 20 years or so, often subsidized the cost to help bring it to market and to achieve the economies of scale which will allow the cost of solar power to compete with traditional thermal (fossil) generation, as well to add to the general effort to decarbonize our electricity generation. A quick effort at reviewing the cost of solar electricity over the last 20 years, in particular by looking at the historical contract prices at which solar generators have made deals to sell power to utilities as well as end users, will show that there has been a steep drop in the price of solar power, and we are now reaching the point where solar power subsidies are disappearing and solar power will stand on its own in competitive electricity markets. A bit over one year ago a contract was let in the UAE to sell bulk solar power at an unsubsidized rate of $13.50 per MWh, equivalent to 1.35 cents per kWh. This was an extremely large scale plant, basically in the desert with ideal solar conditions. But even allowing for smaller scale solar in places like Maryland, the price could be 4X or 5X as high and still be competitive with the power price I receive today from Delmarva Power. No one wants to pay more for power than they have to. But a significant number of people are willing to pay more for power from renewable sources, because they believe in the effort to decarbonize our society.
Let’s face it. No one wants a power plant in their back yard. But when looking at the pros and cons of solar in Kent County, let’s not be alarmist about solar or demonize it undeservedly.