Solar’s secret costs might rain on its parade

But much like I didn’t initially account for the total costs of the coolest bike I’ve ever seen, many aren’t taking into account the other parts of the system needed to support solar.

Key Points

  • Recent reports are touting solar energy as being cheaper in some countries than coal.
  • Others are projecting that solar will be cheaper on average globally by 2025.
  • Most of these projections don’t include total system costs — including the backup energy needed when the sun doesn’t shine. 

I really wanted a family bike for Christmas and nearly had my husband convinced to get me one.

I shopped around and found what I thought was an amazing deal on a Yuba. It’s a cargo bike that can haul two kids, their bikes and all of our groceries. I had grand visions of me pedaling down the bike bath in all my mommy glory, singing songs and laughing with my two little sweeties nestled behind me all the way to the park.

But then I realized that the amazing deal I found had a lot of hidden costs.

Shipping. Assembly. Those cargo bags, cute basket and kids seats? All extra.

In the end, the total costs of the bike proved to be beyond our budget.

A similar thing is happening with the solar industry. Solar is great. I really want it. But many are forgetting the total project costs.

Solar itself is getting much cheaper. In fact, solar prices are down 62 percent since 2009.

Here are more solar cost statistics gathered by Bloomberg:

  • GTM Research expects that some parts of the U.S. Southwest that are approaching $1 a watt today may drop as low as 75 cents in 2021.
  • The U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Lab expects that costs of about $1.20 a watt now will decline to $1 by 2020. By 2030, current technology will squeeze out most potential savings.
  • The International Energy Agency expects utility-scale generation costs to fall by another 25 percent on average in the next five years. 
  • The International Renewable Energy Agency anticipates a further drop of 43 percent to 65 percent for solar costs by 2025. That would bring to 84 percent the cumulative decline since 2009.

This is all great news, and I hope solar will continue to be more affordable as technology develops, manufacturing becomes more advanced and economies of scale kick in.

But much like I didn’t initially account for the total costs of the coolest bike I’ve ever seen, many aren’t taking into account the other parts of the system needed to support solar.

Unfortunately the sun doesn’t shine all the time. I like to have electricity 24/7. So if my utility invests in a big solar project, it has to have a whole other source of energy to ramp up when solar isn’t available. When those costs are included, solar isn’t necessarily the cheapest option.

Hopefully, someday, a family bike and solar power will be affordable for me — all costs considered.

In the meantime, let me know if you hear of anyone looking to sell a used Yuba, Xtracycle, Babboe, Douze or Surly bike.

Bonus if it’s a little beat up.

Better chance of it fitting in my budget. 


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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Showing 2 Comments (oldest to newest)

richard
Solar, like any energy source, has multiple costs, including the balance of system mentioned above. However, fossil fuels including coal and natural gas have lots of costs including environmental degradation and climate change that have yet to be calculated into the "price". I am upset that Black Hills is putting articles such as this on the front page of the website. It certainly shows a lack of leadership in integrating renewable energy into their portfolio and a disconnect with the majority of Americans who support non-fossil fuel sources for electricity. And please stop referencing darkness as a limitation of solar power, it is an oversimplification and prevents discussions around effectively evaluating energy needs on the user end.
4 months 2 weeks ago
Sarah Folsland
Thanks, Richard. You make some good points. As you note, it’s important to consider any energy source’s costs. Right now, from a purely monetary standpoint, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuel options like coal or natural gas. That could change, but it’s hard to say when or how. That’s especially true when you consider that you need backup generation – usually natural gas – when solar’s not available. When you take issue with darkness as a limitation of solar power, what exactly bothers you about that? Right now, in the absence of batteries or other technologies, when the sun isn’t shining, there’s no power, so could you clarify what you meant by oversimplification? Thanks for starting a conversation!
4 months 1 week ago