Solar Power is as Cheap as Gas-Coal Plants Closing

The cost of renewable energy is now so low that coal is uncompetitive before taking into account the huge environmental costs of burning coal.


My father's first full time job out of engineering and law schools was working as a patent attorney for Hoffman Electronics, the company that built the first production solar cells which powered America's first satellites in space, beginning the space age in 1958. I did not realize, until I researched this story, that Hoffman was the one and only company that produced the solar cells that kept our satellites working long after batteries would have failed. America's satellites outperformed the USSR's Sputnik satellites because we used solar power. Early advocates of solar cells, including the inventors at Bell Labs, the engineers at Hoffman electronics and my father were mocked for years with the line "practical solar power is always ten years away" but that has never been true. Solar cells were cost effective in space applications because they were light and durable. The applications for solar cells have steadily expanded as the price has dropped. Prices have plummeted 99% since 1977 to the point today where solar has become fully cost competitive with the cheapest fossil fuel, gas, in Colorado.

Thanks to the solar cells, the Vanguard proved far more valuable to science than the first two, and much larger, Sputniks, whose reliance on conventional batteries forced them to shut down operations after several weeks in space. The long-lived transmitter allowed mapmakers to more accurately map the locations islands in the south Pacific and enabled geophysicists to better determine the earth’s the earth’s shape.

The legacy of the Vanguard is greater than this though. It broke the ice for using the sun in space applications. Solar cells have become one of the critically important devices in the space program, providing the only practical long-lived power source for anything orbiting at a reasonable distance to the sun. From milliwatts in the little Vanguard in 1958 to multiple kilowatts for the International Space Station, solar cells have powered almost every satellite – indispensable for the military and the global economy, as well as for science and entertainment. Without the Vanguard breakthrough, not much of our utilization of space would have been possible.

Thanks to the Vanguard breakthrough, the urgent demand for solar cells above the earth opened an unexpected and relatively large business for those manufacturing solar cells. The stage was set to realize a bold prediction made by Bell Laboratories two years before the Vanguard launch: “The ability of transistors to operate on very low power gives solar cells great potential and it seems inevitable that the two Bell inventions will be closely linked in many important future developments that will profoundly influence the art of living.” The tandem use of transistors and solar cells in the Vanguard and subsequent satellites has turned the Bell prediction to fact. It takes no wild leap of the imagination to expect the transistor/solar cell revolution to continue until it encompasses every office and home in the world. Thanks to solar cells powering devices from space to earth, people everywhere will enjoy the benefits of electricity without doing harm to their home, planet earth.

My father promoted solar power on early morning weekend TV shows in the late 1950's with a display cell I proudly own that is still working today. I used that same cell 40 years later when I promoted renewable energy while running for election for the board of Kauai's power rural co-op. Our dream of a future powered by solar energy has finally come true. Solar power has become fully competitive with fossil fuel power. David Eves, the CEO of Public Service Company of Colorado, announced that solar power is cost competitive without subsidies or carbon taxes at their large new project in Colorado.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut -- without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard -- strictly on an economic basis,” Eves said.

The cost of renewable energy is now so low that coal is uncompetitive before taking into account the huge environmental costs of burning coal. Colorado's CO2 emissions are being slashed at no cost to consumers. Years of government and private investment are paying off. Renewable energy incentives will continue to be good investments because they are paid off by job growth and savings in health costs and environmental damage, but in this case they were not necessary.

In Hawaii, home solar power is so cheap compared to purchased power that installing a solar power system pays for itself in under 3 years. Hawaii has enjoyed a boom in solar power installation jobs as the economy has rebounded from recession. More jobs, cleaner air, lower CO2 emissions and less money spent importing fuel make solar power a big winner in Hawaii. The clean energy vision I campaigned for on Kauai is coming true.

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