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Yet Another Renewable Energy Boondoggle

September 1, 2017

Croplands, habitats, taxes, family budgets, safety sacrificed to enrich politically connected few?

Wilkinson Solar has filed papers requesting permits for a 74-megawatt solar electricity facility about 35 miles east of Greenville, NC. If approved, 288,120 solar panels would blanket 600 acres (0.94 square miles) of now scenic, serene farmland next door to the Terra Ceia Christian School near Morehead City.

The company wants to catch the solar wave, and make a lot of money under “net metering” policies that require payment for electricity added to the grid, whenever it is generated and regardless of whether the electricity is needed at the time. Electricity generated from these new panels would not be sold in the local area; it would be exported to Virginia, Raleigh-Durham and other locations.

Solar power installations doubled in 2016 over 2015, media outlets reported in February. There are now 1.3 million solar installations across the United States, with a cumulative capacity of over 40 gigawatts. That’s enough capacity to power 6,560,000 US households, they say. Of course, there are caveats.

There was intense effort to install as much new photovoltaic as possible in 2016 – driven by a fear that federal tax credits would not be renewed. Solar actually rose from 0.96% of US generation in 2015 only to 1.37% in 2016. 65% of electricity generation is still fossil fuels, 20% is nuclear, 6.5% hydroelectric, 2.0% biomass and geothermal, and 5.6% wind (which is as unreliable as solar).

The reliability factor is critical. The capacity to power 6,560,000 households does not equal actual power generation. It is what panels can generate if the sun shines at high enough intensity 24/7/365. It can be a lot of the time in areas that are bright, dry and sunny most of the year – to very little in other regions.

Those and related issues must guide decisions on whether the Wilkinson facility makes energy, engineering, economic and environmental sense for this North Carolina community, the Tar Heel State – or other locales facing similar decisions. Solar may be advantageous for politicians, corporations, renewable energy activists and their allies. But that should not override other considerations.

A 600-MW capacity coal, gas or nuclear plant operates 90-95% of the time. Its actual output will thus be 540 to 570 megawatts – from 300 acres (or less): 1.8 to 1.9 MW per acre, reliably and affordably.

Wilkinson would theoretically generate 74 MW from twice as much land. That’s 0.12 MW per acre – or 8.1 acres per MW. However, North Carolina averages only 213 sunny days per year, and perhaps 9 hours of good, electricity-generating sun per day.

Instead of 90-95% efficiency, Wilkinson would bring only 20% efficiency. The 288,120 panels would produce electricity only about 20% of the year. That is unpredictable, unreliable, less affordable energy.

The real output would be around 0.03 MW per acre or 33 acres per MW! Wilkinson’s claimed ability to generate enough electricity for 12,500 households shrinks to 2,750 homes, when the sun shines.

Wilkinson and farmers turned occasional power producers would still reap large sums of cash, via net metering and feed-in tariff policies. But crop and wildlife habitat lands would be converted to massive solar arrays, while neighbors would get a blighted landscape and no monetary or other benefits.

As Solar Mania and Solar Sprawl spread, electricity consumers would see their rates climb: from the 9 cents per kilowatt-hour average they now pay in North Carolina and Virginia, ever closer to the 16 to 18 cents per kWh that residents pay in “green energy” states like Connecticut, New York and California. Families, hospitals, schools, businesses, farms and factories would face increasingly tougher times paying their electric bills. Poor and minority families would be hit hardest.

Then there’s the survivability issue. Since 1879, North Carolina has been hit by twelve Category 3 hurricanes, one Category 4 (Hazel in 1954) and multiple tropical storms. Imagine the shards of flying glass that would be torn from solar panels and sent flying in all directions when the next ’cane inevitably hits. What that would do to people, animals and property is not pretty to contemplate. Torrential rains brought by these storms would send flood waters roaring through the installation, wreaking further havoc.

Solar proponents always tout energy, employment and climate stabilization benefits – which don’t exist.

Every megawatt of solar power must be backed up by coal or natural gas generators. Otherwise we have electricity when it happens to be available, instead of when we need it. Otherwise our offices, hospitals, assembly lines, televisions and internet go on and off constantly. No one can work or live that way.

The backup power plants must be running on standby (spinning reserve) all the time – then must ramp up to full power every time the sun stops shining. That slashes their efficiency, and sends their fuel costs and emissions skyrocketing. Any supposed energy, sustainability and climate benefits disappear.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that any solar array can ever generate enough electricity over its entire life span to equal the energy that went into making, installing and servicing the panels. Mining the raw materials, turning them into metals and other panel components, hauling and installing the panels – all require enormous amounts of motor fuels, coking coal and electricity. The balance sheet is in the red.

Add in what it takes to build, fuel and operate the backup power plants, and solar is bankrupt.

Solar power does create jobs. In fact, U.S. Department of Energy data reveal that producing the same amount of electricity requires one coal worker or two natural gas workers – but 12 wind industry employees or 79 solar workers. That is hardly the ticket to a productive economy.

Even worse, Spanish and other studies have found that, for every renewable energy job created, two to four jobs are lost in other sectors that are forced to pay more and more for less reliable electricity.

Price and reliability are crucial in our digital age, with electricity the key to modern living standards, health, safety, and almost everything we make, eat and do. Solar electricity makes prices rise and reliability decline; its repeated electrical surges and slumps damage grid stability.

Some say using fossil fuels – which provide 82% of the energy that makes modern civilization possible – causes dangerous manmade climate change. But Hurricane Harvey just ended the nearly 12-year record absence of a Category 3-5 hurricane striking the United States. Average planetary temperatures are back to the same level we’ve seen for almost 20 years, following the end of the 2015-16 El Niño.

Those and other inconvenient realities completely contradict decades of alarmist climate predictions. And as just noted, overall fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions increase as solar power proliferates.

All this underscores why we must build more pipelines from areas that have become major natural gas production regions, thanks to hydraulic fracturing. Whether a gas-fired power plant serves as a primary electricity generator, or as backup for wind and solar, new pipelines are essential. They determine whether families, hospitals and businesses have affordable electricity when they need it.

Unfortunately, an array of governors, mayors, legislators, regulators and activist pressure groups are blocking pipeline projects from the Dakotas to New York and beyond, even as they promote more wind and solar. Pipelines and electricity are the backbone of our economy, civilization, jobs and living standards. Cut or paralyze that backbone, and our society will cease to function.

Hearing officials must give local residents and energy experts opportunities to explain these issues and voice their concerns about energy, land use, job, economic, environmental, hurricane and other impacts from solar installations like Wilkinson. Anything less is a dereliction of duty that benefits a few players – at the expense of everyone else. That must no longer happen.

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Paul Driessen is a senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, nonprofit public policy institutes that focus on energy, the environment, economic development and international

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