Study: the biggest barrier to solar expansion is that you can't price gouge

A recent study published in the scientific journal Joule, titled "Solar and wind grid system value in the United States: The effect of transmission congestion, generation profiles, and curtailment," proposes a massive predicament in renewable power: it's too cheap.

Substantial adoption of wind and solar energy generation is essential to meet decarbonization goals. As the supply of these resources increases, the value of electricity during sunny or windy hours declines in relation to the average value of electricity. Left unchecked, this value decline might put practical limits on the expansion of wind and solar and threaten decarbonization goals.


Policy makers, regulators, and researchers can use these results to inform decisions about which value decline mitigation strategies to pursue, choosing between technological strategies, such as energy storage or altered plant design, transmission and infrastructure strategies, and policy and regulatory strategies.

On the surface, this sounds…largely good? Cheap, plentiful energy should be the dream, right? But as the MIT Technology Review points out:

Unlike a natural gas plant, solar plant operators can't easily throttle electricity up and down as needed, or space generation out through the day, night and dark winter.


Lower prices may sound great for consumers. But it presents troubling implications for the world's hopes of rapidly expanding solar capacity and meeting climate goals.

It could become difficult to convince developers and investors to continue building ever more solar plants if they stand to make less money or even lose it.

Essentially the problem here — the one that the paper is recognizing, rather than endorsing — is that the lower profit potentials of solar energy mean that it could get harder to incentivize the people with capital to build enough solar arrays and battery storage to handle all of that cheap renewable energy. Why invest in infrastructure that makes the world a better, cleaner place and improves everyone's quality of life, when you can invest in infrastructure that extracts value from the planet like a vampire, slowly draining the life out of everything?

This reminds me of a few years back when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote up a model bill for what they were calling the Environmental Impact Litigation Act, which was designed to fight back against the Clean Power Plan put forth by the Obama Administration, and made such ridiculous claims as:

Creating such special [direct-to-consumer] renewable markets in the states is especially troubling and antithetical to free markets when solar power alone is given the monopoly right to sell power directly to consumers from on-site equipment. Any electricity market reforms must not designate a single energy source for a new monopoly privilege. 

That's right, see, the sun has an unfair monopoly on solar power, which is antithetical to the market.

They also similarly said the quiet-part-out-loud:

Creating a special market for direct solar power sales will discourage the sale of solar power equipment to consumers while incentivizing industry to keep ownership of the equipment so that it may keep the consumers' subsidies.

I'm no fan of ALEC, but this is certainly a reality that has come to pass with the Greenwashing Industry. Of course, ALEC is also largely backed by oil industry money, so the implication in their bill is not that direct consumer access to affordable solar energy is good, but rather, that anything that takes away from them being able to make money off of oil is bad.

In that way, the Environmental Impact Litigation Act sort of proves the point of the recent Joule study: the biggest barrier to wide-scale solar expansion is that no one's found a way to rip enough people off to make it worth their while.

Solar and wind grid system value in the United States: The effect of transmission congestion, generation profiles, and curtailment [Dev Millstein, Ryan Wiser, Andrew D. Mills, Mark Bolinger, Joachim Seel, Seongeun Jeong / Joule]

The Lurking Threat To Solar Power's Growth [James Temple / MIT Technology Review]

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