Cost of Solar Power Still Falling, Falling, Falling

low cost solar powerBarely three years ago, the Obama administration launched the SunShot Initiative, an ambitious effort to transform solar power from an exotic, expensive form of energy into a mainstream fuel that can compete on price with petroleum, coal, and natural gas. In the latest development for low-cost solar power, last week Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that the program is already 60 percent of the way toward its goal of bringing the average price for a utility-scale solar power plant down to the target price of six cents per kilowatt-hour.

In raw numbers, that’s a steep slide from an average of 21 cents in 2010 to only 11 cents by the end of 2013. That’s now less than the average price of electricity in the U.S., which is about 12 cents per kWh, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The trend toward low-cost solar power is nowhere near at an end. The new announcement came with word of yet another SunShot initiative that will help bring the cost of solar power down even more in the coming years: A $25 million funding package for innovative technologies that focuses on manufacturing costs.

$25 million for solar power innovation

The SunShot initiative attacks the cost of solar power from all angles. One focus is on high-tech R&D that aims to make photovoltaic cells and other forms of solar energy harvesting more efficient. Another addresses the “soft costs” involved in installing solar equipment, including permits, administrative costs and labor.

A third area, which the new $25 million funding package is focused on, aims at bringing down the cost of manufacturing solar equipment, in addition to reducing the time and expense involved in installing that equipment.

That will mean, for example, the development of new modular systems that can be manufactured, shipped and set up with minimum expense, which translates into increased automation at both the production and installation ends.

The focus on manufacturing for low-cost solar power dovetails with several other Obama administration initiatives related to clean energy and energy efficiency, including a $7 million round of funding that will help lower the cost of LED lighting and a rather intriguing mashup between the Defense Department and the maker movement’s TechShop.

Low-cost solar power up, fossil fuels on the way out

The Moniz announcement coincided with the official dedication of the massive new Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant in California. Another new utility-scale solar project, Crescent Dunes in Nevada, was recently completed and passed a major milestone last week on its pathway to full commissioning.

The two projects are significant not only because of their size, but also because they represent another critical area of competition for the U.S. energy sector, and that is the ability to compete in global markets. Both of the projects represent next-generation solar technologies.

Ivanpah is the largest solar power plant of its kind in the world. It consists of three units, each of which concentrates solar energy from a field of specialized mirrors called heliostats onto a central tower, where it heats a solution of molten salt. The heated molten salt provides thermal energy to produce steam for running a generator, employing an advanced process that uses 95 percent less water than similar solar power plants.

Crescent Dunes also runs its generators on heated molten salt, with solar energy concentrated by heliostats. In this project, the molten salt also serves double duty as a “salt battery,” storing thermal energy for about six hours. That means the plant can continue to generate electricity long after the sun goes down.

Together, these two plants will provide enough electricity for thousands of homes, without ever needing to dig raw feedstock out of the ground.

As with any large piece of infrastructure, solar plants (and wind farms, for that matter) are not impact-free, but once they are in the ground they are free of impacts related to fuel harvesting and, for that matter, transportation. They are also free of impacts from byproduct disposal, such as coal ash and petcoke.

Contrast that with the steady stream of disasters related to the fossil fuel lifecycle just within the last few weeks, including the coal-washing chemical spill and the coal slurry spill in West Virginia, the North Carolina coal ash spill (which appears to involve a second pipe now), and the Kentucky gas pipeline explosion, and you’ve got a picture of a fossil fuel infrastructure bent to the breaking point.

Image: Crescent Dunes concentrating solar power plant courtesy of SolarReserve

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

43 responses

  1. No matter how you SPIN it the sun doesn’t shine at night and batteries the size of semi truck trailers for every three homes is ridiculous and thermal energy storage that will last 24 hours at low operation is just as ridiculous as well. As long as we are at how about the gov subsidies of to 60% that are dksregarded in calculating costs

    1. Molten salt energy storage systems at other locations are up to 10 hours of storage… enough to get through the night and level out fluctuations during the day. And government subsidies are factored into the cost of energy for the DoE. No spin… costs are dropping dramatically and energy storage, at least at the utility scale, is coming. Why not just admit that it’s pretty neat that solar is coming on strong?

      1. Because then it means that them fuckin’ hippies might have been right and that we could have gotten here a lot sooner by shifting our subsidization priorities from coal and oil into renewables research.

      1. Maybe you should do less ready of Forbes and get your hands dirty with technical information. I was Project Manager with engineering and construction of the worlds first utility scale solar stations in the 80s at Luz Kramer, invested in both csp and pv solar and have a pending solar Patent, please feel free to look it up. I believe solar is the energy source of the future but presently it is limited. I venting because when I take a calculator and calculate performance numbers for batteries for instance the numbers are not the same as reported in the media.

        1. Which part of that is supposed to mean you’re not wrong about solar’s current ability to serve as a base-load or near-base-load power supply? If your numbers contradict what’s shown in the article, provide them. Otherwise save this appeal to 1980’s (lulz) solar experience and whatever amateur tinkering you’re doing now for someone foolish enough to be impressed by that (or to be taken in by your ridiculous notions about which forms of energy are the ones getting subsidized and which ones aren’t).

        2. You are foolish enough without me helping. Whatever you want to believe isn’t necessarly Reality or the Truth and you don’t want search for the truth. You only want to throw missives. I gave you an easy one look up my pending Patent. Your failure only demostrates you are not interested in Truth. I will not dignify any further ŗeeply with an answer, I have better thing to do

        3. Seriously dude, is English not your first language or something? You don’t need to capitalize “reality” and “truth” unless you’re in some kind of a cult. Missive doesn’t mean what you think it means (though given your poor syntax, it’s difficult to discern your meaning at all), reply only has one e and either you have better thingS to do or A better thing to do.

          Your pending patent demonstrates nothing. You claim that you’ve run some independent set of calculations that contradicts either this article or something else, (I guess proving that you know better about the cutting edge of solar technology than the people actually doing it and reporting directly on it) but when pressed you’ve failed to provide them.

          Instead you tried to appeal to your own authority which, of course, you haven’t actually established beyond a reference to construction work you did on a solar plant…what?…30 years ago? Even if your claims weren’t absurdly self-contradictory on their own (solar is impossible to work at base load but it’s also the energy the future), you’re going to have to do a lot better than that to contradict direct evidence that it’s workable at the very least at near-base-load-capacity (

          Furthermore, if your plan is to make claims based on your own credibility, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle if you insist on sprinkling in completely dishonest stuff about the subsidization of solar power when, compared to fossil fuels it’s barely subsidized at all.

  2. This is all good news. Solar is an excellent energy source for homes and retail. However, it’ll never be a base load generation for us (neither will wind for that matter). What we need is nuclear – and lots of it. I agree with James Lovelock on this. Only nuclear can truly replace coal and natural gas and stop the principal source of global warming…

    1. Sorry, what we really need are massive solar plants with thermal energy storage in the southwest, massive wind farms throughout the midwest, supplemental natural gas peaker plants, and a comprehensive national ultrahigh voltage transmission grid. Nuclear is an awfully expensive way to boil water… and we still don’t know what to do with 50 years worth of waste.

      1. and we still don’t know what to do with 50 years worth of waste

        Put it back in the ground where it came from. It’s not like it’s harmful or anything. How many people have been harmed by nuclear waste? Now, how many people have been gruesomely killed working on wind or solar farms, which produce orders of magnitude less energy?

        1. Doug: I think Bill is must be trying to be humorous… “gruesomely killed working on wind or solar farms…”? And, “It’s not like it’s harmful or anything.” Hilarious!

      2. More research into fusion reactors would solve the waste and meltdown problems. On a slightly shorter time scale, more research into thorium would solve the meltdown problem, and vastly reduce the amount of waste fuel. Ideally we need to move away from fossil fuels entirely, including for baseline power. Geothermal where available may be good if the price is right…

    2. With an upgrade to the transmission system the “base load” concern is a non-issue. Wind, especially at 400 feet up, isn’t particularly rare nor it is unpredictable. The wind is pretty much always blowing somewhere day and night. The only issue is to get that power to where it’s needed.

        1. The end result was not too good , Nuke reactors are good though if completed the right way see the following

          , the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE)7. Hugely successful, it was ignored by the US Atomic Energy Commission (US AEC), which had decided to favor the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR). The Director of ORNL, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, pushed for the MSR, but was fired for his efforts 8.

          The notable features of this reactor are:

          Meltdown proof

          Does not produce weapons grade plutonium

          Has inherent non-proliferation features

          Thousands of years of energy

          Simplified fuel cycle (no fuel elements nor reprocessing required)

          Its wastes are simpler and less toxic than current nuclear wastes

          Only hundreds of years of storage versus thousands for the current wastes

          Can completely destroy military plutonium

          Can burn the existing wastes (spent fuel)!

          Higher thermal efficiencies (operates at a “Red Heat”; ~700° C [1,260° F])

        2. What’s funny about that? Look at Fukushima, for instance. No one died, despite the nuclear plant being hit by a natural disaster that killed 20,000 people. If that’s not safe, I don’t know what is. Wind and solar are far deadlier.

        3. Maybe try reading the entire article?

          Tetsuya Ohira, a professor of epidemiology at Fukushima Medical University, disagreed. It was not scientific to compare the Fukushima tests with cancer registry statistics, he argued.

          In November, prefectural officials deemed it unlikely that the increase in suspected and confirmed cases of cancer was linked to radiation exposure.

          Even if it did directly cause 59 cases of cancer (which it didn’t) it’s still really really safe considering that the cause of the accident is a natural fucking disaster that killed 20,000 people.


          Fuck off, retard.

        5. “I don’t care what science and evidence and reason says, I’m going to divorce myself from reality and believe that nuclear power is killing people left and right, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.”

          Compelling argument, bro.

        6. I showed you the evidence retard and your only counter-argument is that the same government that’s consistently downplayed the impacts said “nuh uh!”

          Also, notice how you’ve shifted the goalposts from harm to kill since a bunch of kids getting cancer but being saved by medical science totally means fukishima wasn’t a massive fucking disaster and that nuke plants are super safe, bro.

          You’re a fucking idiot. Go try this intellectually dishonest bullshit on someone stupid enough to let you.

        7. I showed you the evidence

          Scaremongering yellow journalism articles ain’t evidence. Try again.

          notice how you’ve shifted the goalposts from harm to kill

          I’ve said “died” and “killed” all along. Try again.

          fukishima wasn’t a massive fucking disaster and that nuke plants are super safe

          Fukushima was a disaster, and it could and should have been prevented. But as disasters go, it was really not a big deal. Considering that’s the worst nuclear power plant disaster in the last 28 years, yes, nuclear power is really really safe, bro.

          By comparison, wind power kills a dozen workers every year, and no one gives a shit. Coal power kills hundreds of people every week, and no one gives a shit. Why the ridiculous standard for nuclear?

        8. “Scaremongering yellow journalism”

          And we come to the truth of it. YOU are the one ignoring the science.

          “I’ve said “died” and “killed” all along. Try again.”

          You fucking dishonest piece of shit: “How many people have been harmed by nuclear waste?”

          Even if that weren’t a lie, it’s a fucking human garbage standard to apply. Yeah giving kids cancer “was really not a big deal.” What a piece of shit you are, bro.

          “By comparison, wind power kills a dozen workers every year, and no one gives a shit.”

          Are you seriously comparing construction deaths (which of course you’re omitting construction death for the case of nuclear totally) to fucking horrible radiation leaks spewing into the ocean? What the fuck is wrong with you?

          “Coal power kills hundreds of people every week, and no one gives a shit.”

          Yeah, you’re right. All those pro-coal but anti-nuclear people should be ashamed of themselves…you know…all those people that totally exist in reality and aren’t just some attempt to fucking dodge the actual issue.

          “Why the ridiculous standard for nuclear?”

          Maybe because we’re not all shills for the nuclear industry like you? Maybe some people have an interest in actually renewable resources that don’t sit over us looming like fucking ticking time bombs being managed by firms that are trying to somehow meet exponential models of profit growth inevitably leading to more and more lax safety controls in an effort to shave profits while existing in what is essentially a consequence free environment of government bailouts, public cleanup assistance, corporate limited liability, and, let’s not forget, an army of intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt industry insiders willing to dish out horrible shit like “it’s not a big deal that a bunch of kids got cancer” in the vain attempt to sway whatever like-minded-monsters they believe to be in the crowd.

  3. No doubt some will criticize these so called subsidies but I find them appalling low consider the stakes here are the future ability of the planet to sustain life. These paltry subsidies are not even a rounding error with respect to the federal budget.

  4. Together, these two plants will provide enough electricity for thousands of homes

    Less vaguely, Ivanpah generates 985,500 MW·h/year, and Crescent Hills generates 500 GW·h per year, according to Wikipedia.

    So altogether, these 2 enormous projects will produce about 12% of the energy produced by a single nuclear power plant? Impressive. :/

      1. In February 1999, a 900,000-US-gallon (3,400 m3) Mineral Oil storage tank exploded at the SEGS I (Daggett) solar power plant, sending flames and smoke into the sky. Authorities were trying to keep flames away from two adjacent containers that held sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide. The immediate area of 0.5 square miles (1.3 km2) was evacuated.

        No chance of catastrophic failure, environmental pollution, or safety problems. Suuuurrrre.

        1. Old tech. 1999 is several technological lifetimes ago in the rapidly developing concentrating solar power arena. Meanwhile, back in Fukushima: “…Japanese authorities implement(ed) a 20 km exclusion zone around the power plant, and the continued displacement of approximately 156,000 people as of early 2013.”

          And Chernobyl has an even larger exclusion zone.

    1. Yup, they don’t produce as much as a nuke plant, but these two plants, while impressive are still just baby steps for the concentrating solar industry. And, they got built in a couple of years. How long does it take to build a nuke plant?

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