Solar-power showpieces

Radically different governments, same principle: spend pots of public money on solar power in hopes of … well, having a lot of economically unsustainable solar power.

In Ontario, the Globe and Mail reports, The Ontario Power Authority is pleased to have signed contracts for 250 megawatts of solar-power systems:

If all those who have promised to install panels follow through with their plans, Ontario will have some of the biggest solar farms on the planet, and an important “green” industry will be kick-started in the province.

Still, the solar-power generation business is essentially starting from scratch. At year-end only an infinitesimal 0.3 MW of sun-generated energy was being sold to Ontario’s power grid. The biggest completed project so far is a series of panels on the roof of the horse barn at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The industry will be “kick-started,” but the contracts call for the providers to be paid 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about seven times the going rate for electricity in hydro- and nuclear-rich Ontario most of the time. Even in high summer, the spot price for power rarely tops 30 cents a kilowatt-hour. Later in the story, a spokesman for one of the companies involved says 42 cents a kW/h is barely a break-even price for his operation.

So I guess the hope is that this subsidy, for a subsidy it is, will help Ontario-based companies work out some of the kinks in solar-energy generation and move in the direction of the going market prices.

But still β€” seven times the market price? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on nuclear technology, if energy’s what the government’s determined to spend it on?


Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is happily announcing the imminent construction of a Dongtan-style concept town called Masdar City, which is supposed to be a carbon-neutral residence for 50,000.

Abu Dhabi sits on most of the UAE’s oil and gas reserves, ranked respectively as fifth and fourth in the world. Proven oil reserves on their own are expected to last for another 150 years.

But like most oil-producing countries, the UAE also wants to diversify to ease its traditional economic dependency on oil.

The zero-carbon city, part of the wider Masdar Initiative launched by the wealthy Abu Dhabi government in 2006, is also a flagship project of the global conservation group WWF.

Masdar chief executive Sultan al-Jaber described Masdar — Arabic for “source” — as as an entirely new economic sector fully dedicated to alternative energy, which will have a positive impact on the emirate’s economy.

It’ll have transportation pods like Star Trek turbolifts, according to Agence France-Presse, where you’ll be able to walk in and say your destination and it’ll take you there.

Cool. Practical? No. It can function only with massive ongoing subsidies from Abu Dhabi’s oil-drenched economy. That’s the opposite of sustainable.

3 responses to “Solar-power showpieces

  1. Are you suggesting that hydro power is not subsidized or that huge dams would have been built absent of gov’t intrusion? Ditto for nuclear. In the U.S., the only way the nuclear power industry ever got off the ground and continues to operate is that the Gov’t and not the power companies has responsibility for waste disposal. Where in the oil price is the U.S. defense budget?

    If your point is that energy shouldn’t be subsidized, make it. But don’t pretend all energy but solar is unsubsidized. Or that the price on your electric bill reflects a free of subsidy price.

  2. Hi David,

    I suspect that nuclear would cost more than $0.42 per kilowatt hour if subsidies were removed and/or externalized costs were internalized. Have any studies been done to answer that question that you know of?

    You’re right on about Masdar, though. I’ve been to Abu Dhabi. It’s unreal. As in, the city does not mesh with reality. It takes an immense amount of energy to maintain that kind of wasteful lifestyle in the middle of a desert.

  3. Chris —

    A lot obviously depends on what price you put on dealing with the waste, which remains highly poisonous effectively forever.

    Most anti-nuclear advocates would probably estimate the price somewhere around infinity, which tends to rule nuclear out altogether; personally, I think that’s excessive and unhelpful.

    I’m inclined to agree with outfits like the Nuclear Waste Management Organization that we can make waste-storage safe enough that the risk associated with it is really only theoretical. Admittedly they think they’re, what, 15 or 20 years away from finding a safe place to put Canada’s radioactive waste permanently, so I could certainly be proven wrong.

    Some interesting figures on the direct costs of different kinds of generation are rounded up here, with the general consensus being that nuclear costs a little less than double what coal does to build; operating costs are similar. That’s apparently if you include waste disposal in the cost of nuclear but not pollution in the cost of coal.

    There’s also some EU stuff in there about externalities, concluding that only wind power produces lower external costs than nuclear does. Solar doesn’t seem to have been considered, though.

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