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Trump's Solar Tariffs Won’t Bring the Coal Industry Back to Life

As far as efforts go, President Trump’s solar tariffs to bring the coal industry back to life is a very poor one. Renewable energy is unstoppable, and solar tariffs don’t have the power to change that.

A solar auction in Nevada just gave birth to the most inexpensive solar project in the country, breaking a record that was only set a week prior. The amount of money that it takes to make this new plant operational is a lot less than what new natural gas and coal plants ask for.

It was the 30-megawatt farm in Arizona that held the title for the cheapest solar project in America just a few weeks ago. The project was conceived in an effort to replace the Navajo Generating Station, which caused some friction with tribal members of the area. The project was auctioned for the incredibly low price of $24.99 per megawatt-hour over the duration of a 20-year contract.

Nevada’s sunny weather and federal tax credits have a lot to do with this, but the project is clearly a consequence of solar power becoming cost-competitive and starting to beat fossil fuels in the market.

This new project is called Eagle Shadow Mountain Solar Farm, and it will become operational in 2021. The farm will have a generating capacity of 300 megawatts, which is enough to power around 210,000 homes in the US. If you don’t think this is impressive enough, wait until I tell you about the price!

This farm will operate at a flat rate of $23.76 per megawatt-hour over the course of a 25-year-long contract. If you’re not particularly knowledgeable about this new energy movement, then the price won’t seem like a big deal, but it is.

According to Ramez Naam, energy expert and lecturer at Singularity University, “the price of building these energy farms is less than a third of the price of building new coal or natural gas power plants.”

Naam goes on to say that building these farms is even cheaper than operating existing coal or natural gas plants.

The 30% federal investment tax credit dedicated to solar projects such as these is a big help; however, Naam affirms that even if there wasn’t such a credit, the farms would still be cheaper.

Included in the Nevada auction were several projects that link utility-scale solar with batteries. This brings us a step closer to mastering the solar-plus-storage dilemma, which is essential for renewables to completely overtake fossil fuels in all facets.

According to Naam, “Batteries weren’t a part of solar or wind projects in the past, but in 2018 we’ve noticed that battery storage has become a frequent part of the bids.”

What do all these projects have in common? They’re located in the Southwest region, known for its sunny weather.

Location definitely plays a major role in keeping the prices low, but so does technology. According to Naam, these prices are only a taste of what’s to come in places like Colorado, California, and Texas in a few years.

These projects don’t only show that green energy is more affordable—they also show that there’s nothing the Trump administration can do to bring fossil fuels back to life. The solar tariffs, says Naam, “only move the price of solar back by a year, at most.”

In fact, the tariffs have not been successful at slowing down solar projects at all. The latest report by the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that 55% of the country’s electricity-generating installations in the first quarter of 2018 was solar.

This is all a clear sign of great progress, but if we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the transition to green energy needs to happen even faster.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on August 1, 2018

I think the issue of the Trump solar tariffs and the Trump efforts in coal country are two very different ones. Certainly Trump's policies have not been ones that embrace renewable energy, and the solar tariffs are among the most visible pieces of evidence towards that-- but I don't think that was done to help bolster coal by any means. Trump (or, rather, his administration and advisors) doesn't see solar as the immediate threat to coal-- that role goes to natural gas and to a lesser extent wind, based on capacity and generation. Trump's various DOE-based efforts to bolster coal have really come at the expense of natural gas, though, as that is the fuel the most immediately threatens coal-- natural gas generation even surpassed coal generation nationwide recently (both hovering around 30% of total U.S. power generation-- while solar  is behind both hydro and wind among renewables, accounting for only a couple percent today). 

Bryan Leyland's picture
Bryan Leyland on August 2, 2018

This will claims that, with tax breaks solar is cheap $24.99 /kWh. Maybe so, but solar doesn't keep the lights on light, doesn't provide enough power when the load is increasing after 4 PM and doesn't produce much power on a cloudy day. Factor all this in, and it is very expensive indeed.

 In Spain, solar development stopped as soon as the subsidies were withdrawn. In the wholesale power process in Spain is likely to be a lot higher than the USA.

If, for some strange reason, you want to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide – a harmless gas that is essential to life, promotes plant growth, benefits agriculture and reduces desertification – then clean and safe and environmentally friendly nuclear power is the obvious answer.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on August 6, 2018

Carbon dioxide is indeed a naturally occuring gas, but that doesn't mean increasing levels of it are safe. But if we can't agree on that baseline, then it surely makes the rest of the debate pretty hard. Nuclear is valuable, especially for it's carbon-neutral generation, but it would go best in tandem with wind and solar. 

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