By Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
If the faces of renewable energy critics are not red yet, they soon will be. For years, these critics — of solar photovoltaics in particular — have called renewable energy a boutique fantasy. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post continues the trend, asserting that solar subsidies take money from the poor to benefit the rich.
But solar-generated electricity is turning into a powerful environmental and economic success story. It’s also threatening the balance sheets of electric utility companies that continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
As their costs per kilowatt hour have fallen through the floor, solar arrays have hit the rooftops.
The average price of a solar panel has declined an estimated 60 percent since the beginning of 2011, and this year the total photovoltaic capacity in the United States is projected to reach 10 gigawatts, the energy equivalent of several nuclear power plants. (By one estimate, photovoltaic costs crossed over to become cheaper than electricity generated by new nuclear plants about four years ago.)
An analysis of remodeling and construction permit data from 77 municipalities around the United States reveals that solar installations — primarily photovoltaic rather than solar thermal — grew by a third last year alone. With a relatively short payback period, these home-improvement investments are now within the reach of many middle-class families.
In both Europe and the United States, generous public subsidies including tax breaks and feed-in tariffs requiring utilities to buy back consumer-generated electricity that feeds into the grid have allowed solar photovoltaics to achieve vastly lower unit costs. But these subsidies are dwarfed by historical taxpayer support of both fossil-fuel and nuclear-generated electricity. The International Energy Agency warns that continuing fossil-fuel subsidies contribute significantly to global environmental problems.
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