Emotion, not analysis: “10% solar” would cost $58 billion in WA

It’s a fault of humankind that we’re always expecting to be lauded for our good intentions. It’s as true in the world of politics and policy as anywhere else. Judge not if my idea can actually work or not, but on whether or not it’s on the “right side of history” (careful with that phrase, you’ll get George Will all fired up).

Surely there are good intentions behind Environment Washington’s call to increase the amount of solar-derived power in Washington. The group is calling for “committing Washington to getting 10% of its electricity from the sun by 2025” as part of its Go Solar campaign.

It sounds noble, but is it actually a good idea? In one of his brilliant take-downs (where he actually uses math and facts and stuff), Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center points out a few problems with the 10% solar goal.

Our Cloud Problem: “…according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Western Washington is literally the worst place in the lower-48 states to generate solar energy.”

The Price Tag: $58 billion. Myers arrived at this figure based on $5000 to install a solar component that will produce one kilowatt hour. To produce 10% of Washington’s electrical consumption – about 11.6 billion kilowatt hours – from solar, you’d need $58 billion to buy and install those components. If you want to see how Myers worked out the math, you can check out his spreadsheet here. As he points out, the $58 billion figure equals the State of Washington’s budget for three years. It’s completely impractical.

The Opportunity Cost: “For that same amount, we could invest in carbon reduction projects like capturing methane from landfills and reduce 375 times as much CO2 or the CO2 from all of Washington’s electricity through the year 2062.”

Unfortunately, this idea represents the sort of feel-goodery we too often see in environmental proposals. Clearly cost, practicality, and site-specific viability were not taken into account before declaring a 10% solar goal.

Good intentions don’t shield a proposal from the hard economics of energy today, nor from the limitations of our local physical environment. We can’t legislate away the clouds.

Nor should we legislate away our economic advantages. In an interview with Dori Monson on Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee touted our clean energy jobs and immediately cited the carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake. BMW makes its carbon fiber here instead of at home largely because our hydropower-dominated electricity supply costs about ¼ the price as in solar-heavy Germany.

A full analysis of the true cost to get 10% of our energy from solar would have to include the many power-intensive businesses that would cease to operate in Washington if our electricity prices increased significantly. That’s more than we can expect from proposals that start from emotion first and analysis second.
-Rob McKenna

The following two tabs change content below.
Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.