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US installs record solar capacity as prices keep falling

bdcravens

Virtually every one of the solar salespeople (probably a dozen in less than 3 months) I have had come to my door use shady tactics. ("We are here from your energy utility to give you a free energy analysis....", "free solar" (based on net costs only, but ignoring the $30k in payments you sign up to cover installation etc), etc. I'm hip to the tactics, but everyone may not be. I have at least one friend that tells me they regret the decision.

I'm actually pro-solar, and plan to get it eventually, but I think the scaminess surrounding it will put a nasty taste in people's mouths for years to come.

ncmncm

Rooftop solar costs quite a lot more to field than utility solar.

If you can buy from a community solar project, instead, that is likely a better deal.

bdcravens

Unfortunately I'm in the Houston area, where there isn't much support for renewables or sustainability on a level larger than the individual. The best I was able to do was find a grid provider that claims to be 100% renewable.

93po

My issue with those providers is that buying their services doesn't mean they're expanding their renewable sources to match the people signing up for them. Those sources exist and are being used already, it just gives them a bucket of billing that they can mark up.

buro9

At what point does the accumulation of solar deployed start to threaten the economics of power plant creation?

That is... power plants are such significant investments that they are only viable with a government guarantee on future price and demand. But with renewables being deployed at large scale, those guarantees would start being something a gov would pick up the tab on rather than long-term by consumers.

Which is to hypothesis that the gov won't want to pick up the tab, prices of grid energy will rise fast, and there's a long-term incentive to getting off-grid that will accelerate whenever this tipping point occurs.

tuatoru

What guarantee? Are you thinking of nuclear plants?

Gas turbine power plants are cheap to build. (They have to be, because they're used as "peakers", only operating 10% - 20% of the time.) The threat to them is battery storage, not renewable generation.

Combined-cycle gas turbines (combined with steam powered generation using the turbine exhaust for heat) are slightly less cheap, but nowhere near the same league as nuclear costs.

Even so, in some places it's now (2022) cheaper to build new PV than to pay for the gas to run a fully paid-for gas plant. Or so we are told.

Long distance high voltage transmission lines sometimes need government involvement, because 1) they affect many land-owners, at least some of whom won't be happy; and 2) the margins are low in the power transmission game.

The need for long-distance transmission and gas peakers could be reduced quite a bit in a year or so, if PV, wind, and battery storage prices continue on trend (downwards). Not off-grid, but local grid.

belorn

Guarantees on future price is what Germany did/does as subsidies to the renewable sector. If prices fall significantly then it would be the German government that has to pay the difference between what investors expected and what the market is willing to pay.

With prices going the other, governments in EU (including Germany) is now considering subsidies again by creating a price roof. Any difference between the roof price and the market price will be paid by the government.

Nuclear plants can have similar subsidies. Price guarantees and price roofs are market tools rather than technology dependent tools, but they are more likely to trigger if the market price is fluctuating a lot. The more weather dependent the energy grid is, for now (and in general), the larger and more frequent the difference between max and min price are, the more likely the government will have to pay out in order to offer such subsidies.

Of course the government are not required to offer either subsidies.

KptMarchewa

>With prices going the other, governments in EU (including Germany) is now considering subsidies again by creating a price roof. Any difference between the roof price and the market price will be paid by the government.

Isn't it the other way around? The difference won't be paid; the whole idea is to stop paying over the roof.

ZeroGravitas

This happened a while ago. Before renewables actually.

Peaker plants only run some of the time. They charge more for their power because they need to cover their fixed costs.

That's partly why people use gas plants, theyre relatively cheap to build, which matters when you are effectively acting as a backup.

We could in theory let these businesses gamble on how often they will be needed but grids/governments already found it better to pay capacity fees to these generators to ensure they are available if needed.

Notably, that money goes to the people who build the plant, not the fossil fuel suppliers, unless the capacity is actually needed.

But even those people are having their business model challenged because batteries that are installed to shift daily solar peaks can bid for the same peaks.

And as the gas gets burnt less, the price goes up, in a vicious circle that leads to more and more battery deployment.

pfdietz

The peakers are still needed for the last few percent that batteries can't economically cover. The price of power at those times will rise to the point that the peakers can still cover their costs, but it will be cheaper than having enough batteries to handle it. What's needed is to expose those prices to the end users so demand dispatch can handle some of it.

Very low capacity factor peakers could be run with hydrogen (or other e-fuels) without greatly affecting their costs, since they'd use so little of it.

tuatoru

If grid battery prices fall another 90% (on trend, this will be in 10 - 15 years, and there is no reason to think that it cannot happen), the economics will probably be different.

Need to skate where the puck's going, not where it is.

geoduck14

I had a fascinating talk with an executive at a power dustrobution company a couple of years ago.

He looked forward to Solar. He said the #1 biggest cost of electricity was 2 fold: 1) running cable everywhere and 2) anticipating demand 10 years away and running cable for that demand

So, putting solar on your roof really helps them with demand "far" from the plant

Retric

In the daytime grid solar is already the cheapest option in terms of cost per kWh, but demand is on a second by second basis not simply a question of producing enough total power each month. That means there isn’t a single tipping point, just increased adoption as costs drop. Cheaper grid storage increase the amount of PV grid operators will want etc.

As to going fully off grid, [Rooftop solar + inverters etc + batteries + installation] vs [paying for the same things + an electric grid] seems to favor home installation before you consider economies of scale. When panels where expensive rooftop solar was more competitive because the primary costs where the panels themselves, but as they drop other costs become more relevant and solar farms are pulling ahead. Though specific tax breaks for rooftop solar muddles the issue.

ben_w

> At what point does the accumulation of solar deployed start to threaten the economics of power plant creation?

From what I've read… a few years ago, even for existing plants and just counting fuel costs. Although the cause is because it is cheap, not because of how much is installed.

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jillesvangurp

Right now. Seriously, companies that are building gas/coal/nuclear plants under the assumption that electricity prices are going to stay at the current levels are making a very fatal mistake. A lot of investments in this space are drying up for this reason or effectively under water. Investors know this and are moving their money elsewhere.

Cost per mwh from off-shore wind is below 50$ now in a market where the prices peaking north of 500$ recently. Very profitable business. Solar energy is cheaper than that and even more profitable. Basically as panel prices drop, the life time cost of their energy drops as well. And since that is measured in decades, it's very low to begin with.

A 100 watt panel operational for 3 decades producing maybe 0.5kwh per day on average would produce around 5 mwh of power during it's operational life (a bit over 10k days, easy number to work with). More in sunny places, less in cloudy places. You can get solar panels like that at around 50$. Those are consumer prices, power plants would be able get better deals. The higher efficiency ones that people actually put on their roofs are more expensive of course but also produce more energy. The cost of the energy they produce is probably around 30-40$ per mwh That's domestic solar and right now. Prices for commercial solar plants are around 1-2 cents per kwh in some sunny countries (unsubsidized). So 10-20$ per mwh In other places it's a bit higher. We'll see that drop below 10$ very soon. Offshore wind is more expensive typically but still very lucrative.

So, in a market where that is true right now, planning to operate new plants where the energy cost is at least 10x that, you are not going to be able to compete long term. Basically operating at 10x the cost of your competitors is a lousy business plan. And when 10x has a chance of becoming 100x or even a 1000x it's basically madness to even consider that.

Prices will eventually actually drop below a 10 cents per mwh. It's a bold prediction but you can just look at the cost curves and trends and make some predictions. It will happen in the next 2-3 decades. That's a 10x improvement relative to now.

What makes solar panels expensive is all the exotic materials, glass, and energy needed to produce them. Energy cost is trending down. So, that helps. And there are companies producing solar with organic materials that are essentially printing them on rolls. This is a new and emerging business but you'd find those on some EV car roofs for example. That sounds like something that could drop prices a lot and would also be really scalable. Lower material cost, lower energy cost, economies of scale. A 10x cost drop is a conservative estimate. It might turn int 50x or even 100x eventually. So, relative to the 10x difference we have today that adds up to a very depressing outlook for anything else.

So, coal/nuclear/gas power plant creation is not a great investment currently. These plants need to operate for decades to generate meaningful return on investment.

Short term there's plenty of demand for expensive energy, long term energy is going to be so cheap and plentiful that that business will dry up rapidly. More so than is already happening.

Many power plants are of course already unsustainable economically and only survive because of government support and protectionist measures. There are a lot of coal companies that went bankrupt in recent years. And gas plants aren't doing much better. Nuclear plants have similar issues. Yes they are clean but way too expensive. People are building new ones not because they are cheap but because securing access to energy is strategically important to countries. But unless somebody figures out how to make them 100x cheaper than they are now, they are not going to ever be competitive. And there's no guarantee that 100x would be enough even.

pfdietz

> What makes solar panels expensive is all the exotic materials,

What exotic material is needed for crystalline silicon PV (95% of the market)? Silicon itself is extremely mundane; it's the second most common element in the Earth's crust.

tuatoru

It's more the energy cost involved in purifying the refined silicon and implanting the dopants without causing defects that hurt panel efficiency.

And the glass covers and aluminum frames. Making them also uses a lot of energy.

Roll-to-roll low temperature printed PV (using perovskites on plastic film)[1] potentially has lower production cost for this reason.

Put a roll in a shipping container with the controller and inverter electronics, truck it to the site, roll it out on the ground,[2] and hook up the inverter to the grid. Construction costs don't get much lower than that.

1. https://powerroll.solar/unique-solar-film/

2. Bulldoze and steamroll the ground first, if you want. Optional.

pydry

I think he's a bit out of date. Some of the hi tech solar panels still use rare earths but since ~2014 they're more the kind of thing you'd put on a space station not a roof.

The cheap, grid scale solar panels are all crystalline silicon.

ncmncm

Right, the premise, "What makes solar panels expensive" is flawed. They are not expensive, they are astonishingly cheap.

But maybe he just means that something will keep their cost above zero, which is true. But their cost per watt nameplate capacity will continue on down with the amount of material they need, and the amount of labor going into them.

Today they still need a frame, and glass, and are packed in boxes onto pallets and shipped; to be mounted on rails and brackets. But soon enough they will have no glass, and no frame, and be shipped in big rolls to be stretched between posts.

jillesvangurp

A few rare earths, precious metals like platinum, copper, etc. It's also why recycling them is a thing.

neilwilson

Trouble is the cost of solar panels doesn't factor in the dust to dust costs. It's essentially still relying upon the subsidy from cheap Chinese manufacturing. That isn't a sustainable method of creating, or renewing them - particularly when battery storage starts to compete with cars for the raw materials used to produce the batteries. There isn't enough raw materials available on a global scale to do both, and that tightness will likely reverse the cost decline and probably rapidly.

The cheap installed renewable plant that is going in today needs to start self replicating itself on a dust-to-dust basis. Otherwise it is going to end up being a one off benefit that we squandered - like easily accessible gas fields.

Which is why nuclear needs to be there as the strategic option. Markets aren't always the best way to make long term decisions.

tuatoru

To elaborate a little on ncmncm's reply, there is a cornucopia of alternatives available for grid battery storage.

Sodium sulfur, iron air, aluminum air are three technologies we have waiting in the wings if lithium ever runs short. We'll never run out of any of those raw materials.

(Edit: I'm not going to mention flow batteries, thermal storage (will we run out of rocks to heat up?), compressed air storage, or other chemicals like hydrogen or ammonia storage.)

But, we are not short of lithium. There is plenty.

There is a temporary shortage of lithium refining capacity, plants that take in the raw mined lithium and produce high purity lithium carbonate ready for the battery factories. But lithium mines? No shortage there.

Also, it'd be reasonable to hold nuclear to the same "dust to dust" standard. Check out what it takes to produce and dispose of nuclear fuel and reaction vessels sometime.

ncmncm

There is, in fact, far more than enough raw materials for all the batteries that will be needed.

Stationary batteries do not need lithium. And utilities can store energy in bulk without batteries, in other media.

All the nukes will be mothballed as there comes to be zero hours during which they can offer power at a competitive price. Each reduction in duty cycle means they have to bid higher for what is left. Owners may write off capex and try to get enough just to pay to maintain their turbines, and fail at that, too.

willis936

US energy price hike of 50-100% in the past week. Whatever impact solar has on energy price: it is very much not the dominant effect.

ncmncm

Solar, despite its fast accelerating installation rate, is still a very, very small fraction of the mix, most places.

RestlessMind

To add concrete stats [1], solar is only 2.8% of overall US electricity generation in 2021. But if you look at the "billion kW per year" numbers since 2011, they are: 1.82, 4.33, 9.04, 17.69, 24.89, 36.05, 53.29, 63.83, 71.94, 89.20, 114.68. That's a ~10x growth in 10 years, ~25% growth for each of the last 2 years.

At a 15% annual growth rate, you double in 5 years. Throw in economies of scale, tailwinds of regulations and social norms and a 10% electricity generation by 2030 looks probable.

[1] https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-...

akira2501

Yea.. it's a pretty long way to go to seamlessly pick up summer and some winter loads, though. Look at the CAISO supply trend on Sep 07 2022:

https://www.caiso.com/TodaysOutlook/Pages/supply.html

Similarly, examine it on Feb 07 2022.

ZeroGravitas

Its not clear what you intend us to conclude from that data.

I'd conclude that until solar has excesses on the peak demand days that it probably makes financial sense to keep rolling out more solar.

And that increase in excess on non-peak days then makes rolling out batteries make financial sense.

And then the presence of those batteries makes rolling out even more solar make sense.

And indeed that is what is happening.

ncmncm

Right, you only roll out storage as fast as you have overcapacity to charge it from.

The amount of storage build-out that justifies, thus far, is easy to accommodate with batteries. Later, as renewables shoulder more of the load, the storage needs to get bigger and you start looking for economies of scale.

Ultimately, instead of paying to build out long-term storage, most places will rely on imports of synthesized liquid fuel to burn in peaker plants, from places that produce excess reliably, e.g. tropics, for solar, and reliably windy places. It is always windy somewhere. That synthetic liquid fuel is most likely ammonia.

And, while waiting for those to come online and undercut NG, you just continue peaking with NG.

Today people are breaking ground for factories to build ammonia synthesis equipment, which will take remarkably long to finish and start producing. Then those need to build enough synthesis equipment to absorb hundreds and thousands of excess GW. And we will have ships to transport it in, tanks to keep it in.

All that is a huge job, but it will be done. The stuff that handles an equal amount of petroleum and NG was built and is used, and will wind down and be scrapped.

ncmncm

Provided, of course, civilization doesn't collapse first.

If build-out matches predictions, collapse is an easy call. But build-out has been consistently beating predictions.

fasthands9

If I'm reading this chart correctly on 2-07-22 solar production reached a peak of ~11MW and stayed their for about 6 hours.

On 9-7-22 solar production reached a peak just under ~13MW and was at that level for about 7/8 hours.

To me the average seasonal difference actually seems insignificant in the big picture. If its feasible for solar to power most energy on the summer days then it would be doable to get there for winter days especially since demand on 2-7-22 peaked at about 60% of the peak on 9-7-22.

The larger issues seem to be unpredictable off days due to off-season weather (cloud cover or wilfire ash or whatever) and of course storing power at night. But it seems like batteries will improve and running off solar on the day reduces need for natural gas until night.

pjc50

That page shows me "-17MW" for solar, so I'm not sure what to make of that?

ZeroGravitas

If you visit the link it loads todays info. The poster was intending us to select a specific date on the calendar to get the full days info not just the early morning.

Not totally sure why solar would ever be negative, but that's the wider explanation I think.

One possibility is that batteries are often colocated with solar, so possibly a solar/battery combination has been misfiled under solar.

jokoon

Not to mention that a big fraction of those panels are made in china, and panels generally generate much less power after 20 or 30 years.

They're also vulnerable to hail, and require a lot of copper wiring.

I would buy any stock related to mini nuclear reactors. It seems like a promising solution, since it's faster and simpler to deploy, they can probably be sold to less rich countries, they're probably even safer.

I'm not a nuclear engineer, but I wish there was more news about it.

gwicks56

People have been hyping up small modular reactors for as long as I have been alive. They make total sense. And yet, there is not a single one is operation? I don't really care what tech gets us to cheap, abundant power, but given the cost curves of solar and batteries, it's hard to see anything competing.

Both are here, right now, and getting cheaper every year. Nuclear seems to be something climate skeptics points to as a way of doing nothing.

i_am_proteus

It is probably more productive to talk about why certain technologies have and have not been adopted than to "take sides" in an artificial debate that, for some reason, pits nuclear against wind and solar.

The first small modular civilian reactor in the United States in 2022. However, the United States has been producing small modular reactors for military use since the late 1950s.

Ignore dogma and consider cases why nuclear power might be beneficial even if the dollar cost for wind and solar is globally lower: - The power output variance for nuclear is not very correlated with solar, wind, and hydro. Given the issues related to supply and demand variance, adding power sources whose variance isn't correlated with other power sources stabilizes supply and reduces risks of blackouts. - Solar, wind, and hydro are very geographically-dependent sources. To a small degree, so is nuclear— it requires cooling— but it can be built in places that aren't great choices for wind and solar. This means it's very useful for some local markets. - Nuclear has a different set of mineral requirements from batteries. In many ways, they are more complicated (e.g., enriching Uranium for light water reactors), but they are nonetheless different. Using nuclear alongside batteries reduces risk from mineral supply chains being broken.

Most of these effects run in both directions. Relying entirely on one source of energy is more risky than utilizing an ensemble of sources.

belorn

We shouldn't assume that pro-nuclear people are climate skeptics, anymore than we should assume that anti-nuclear people are fossil fuel advocates. German renewables politicians voted to get natural gas declared as green, and on the opposite side of the political debate we had nuclear politicians, both accusing the other side of being climate skeptics.

We should not care what tech get us to cheap, abundant, emission-free power, and the current trends from nations around the world points in multiple directions. We don't see examples of cheap small modular reactors, but we also don't have national grids that operates exclusively on solar and batteries. Solar seem to have the best cost curve, while short duration batteries looks great in replacing natural gas when those are used in short (a few hours) duration. Battery technology is also looking great to replace grid stabilizers, ie something to temporary supply or take energy when energy plants on the grid boots up or goes winds down.

Skeptics of solar and batteries is generally directed towards the idea of replacing all worlds existing fossil fueled power plants. Replacing them all with nuclear looks conceptional feasible. Getting the solar capacity up to 100% seems also feasible, but batteries is generally were people start to have doubts.

pjc50

> since it's faster and simpler to deploy

No it isn't, as demonstrated by all the solar being installed alongside the zero mini nuclear reactors.

> require a lot of copper wiring

Intuitively I'd expect the quantity of wiring to be roughly proportional to output power, regardless of method; how much do you need for the coils of reactor turbines, for example?

> panels generally generate much less power after 20 or 30 years.

Maybe? That's the expected lifetime, but the actual outcome will vary depending on how weather-beaten they are. Being entirely solid state with no moving parts larger than an electron-hole pair is quite an advantage.

> can probably be sold to less rich countries

We're just going to stop worrying about proliferation?

jokoon

per energy output, nuclear reactors require less metal, concrete, steel, etc.

fpoling

I used to be pro-nuclear. But the war in Ukraine stopped that. One does not need to be a president of Russia to bomb a nuclear reactor. A crazy guy at top of even small country can clearly manage to destroy reactors with modern conventional weapons releasing a lot of radioactivity. Smaller reactors increase that risk exponentially simply by having more targets closer to densely populated areas.

Fusion reactors in theory can be much safer in that regard, but until they are realized and shown to work I do not see any sensible alternative for building solar or wind while keeping coal and gas power stations running.

ncmncm

Fusion plants according to current projected designs would not, in fact, be appreciably safer. It is academic, because they would be 10s to 1000s of times as expensive as what they would be competing with, so will not be built.

D-3He reactors might someday find uses in the outer solar system, or in military rapid-deployment corps, if they turn out possible. But availability of 3He will always be a problem. Probably it will be bred by using solar power to accelerate protons.

greenthrow

Nuclear plants take too long to get up and running to help us with the climate crisis that is here now. We can meet all our needs with renewables and storage.

Who cares that the panels are mostly made in China? Most of the electronics that would control your hypothetical nuclear plant would be made in China too.

pfdietz

Why does the wiring of PV panels have to be copper? The wiring (aside from the contact wires actually on the cells themselves) is not volume constrained, so I'd expect aluminum to be used, not copper.

jokoon

that's even more energy intensive and expensive, I guess

Brometheus

benzin

I'm pro-everything. From my flawed knowledge of economic history, energy rules all and is the single best thing to invest in for a country or civilisation's future. [1][2][3][4][5]

Any advantages individual technologies have in energy generation, transportation or storage is probably worth exploring.

I hope to have more insight in this when I get around to reading Vaclav Smil, or better yet work in the energy industry as it seems to be one of the few industries I've looked at that definitely needs to exist.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution

[3] https://www.quora.com/Why-didnt-Hitler-try-to-capture-Moscow...

[4] https://www.history.com/news/why-did-japan-attack-pearl-harb...

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale

WHATDOESIT

These are real issues. Saying nuclear is too hard/too dangerous/too expensive/takes too long is the real FUD, simply because it's a wide range of significantly different technologies each with vastly different properties (whereas solar panels are all pretty similar and the problems are not with one particular kind but external - caused by how the solar panels are used). We need both/all.

pdx_flyer

The biggest unknown right now is how FERC 2222 is going to play out. It essentially allows consumer solar to be aggregated and sold on the wholesale markets. As aggregators come online and prices fluctuate there are going to be even more regulations as federal and state officials find flaws and gaps in how the system works.

I tend to lean toward battery storage as being the piece that will tip the scale. As more efficient and longer lasting batteries come online, grid ops will become a bit easier and some of the DER capacity that would typically be shed could be stored for later needs.