Solar power price tag plummets, but climate change is making disaster relief costs soar

Solar panels in a desert in India. Other countries and individual states are tapping into a booming solar market, with costs getting cheaper every year.

While the Trump administration continues to boost dying fossil fuel industries, the rest of the world is stepping up to the true bargain of solar power.

In 2016, the record low unsubsidized solar energy price was 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. This year, 3.6 cents is becoming the top price, with bids going lower and lower. Saudi Arabia is building a 300-megawatt photovoltaic solar plant, and every bid it received was cheaper than that—the lowest bid price was 1.79 cents per kilowatt-hour. “For context, the average residential price for electricity in the United States is more than six times that, 12 cents/kWh,” says a story on Think Progress.

Why are oil-rich states in the Middle East investing in so much solar? Because using solar has become cheaper than using the oil they’re sitting on, and it leaves them with more oil to export. According to a story from Bloomberg Markets:

Solar power is getting so cheap that even Gulf Arab states awash in crude oil are embracing the renewable resource. Their motive is as much to keep selling fossil fuels as it is to rein in their carbon emissions.

With almost 30 percent of the world’s oil reserves and some of the lowest costs of production, Arab countries in the Persian Gulf will probably rely for years to come on crude exports as a pillar of their prosperity. But improvements in solar technology mean it will be cost effective to exploit the region’s abundant sunshine instead of burning their oil and natural gas to run power plants. That could allow them to export more and boost their haul of petrodollars.

Solar power increased worldwide by about 50 percent in 2016. The greatest growth came in the U.S. and China, which alone accounted for one-half the number of solar panels installed. The International Energy Agency says solar was the fastest-growing source of new energy worldwide, a shift mainly driven by falling prices and supportive government policies.

Although the U.S. federal government is now going in the wrong direction, many states in this country are headed in the right one. The solar industry has more than quadrupled in individual states in the last five years. To no one’s surprise, the top state using solar power is California, but others on this list from Energy Sage might be surprising. What they have in common are state tax credits, creative loan programs, and (of course) abundant sunshine. Homeowners and businesses are saving money on solar installation.

Which is good. Because the money we’re spending on relief from weather disasters made worse from climate change is only going up. Way up.

Here are the top solar states by cumulative capacity in 2017, with more information from Energy Sage:

  • California. “California now boasts 19,000 megawatts (MW) of installed solar to date, which is roughly the equivalent of the next nine states combined,” Energy Sage says.
  • North Carolina. North Carolina is now a top 10 state for solar jobs.
  • Arizona. Its state solar tax credit cuts the cost of going solar by one-quarter. “Arizona homeowners get the benefit of both their local and the federal tax subsidy and as a result, see some of the best prices for [photovoltaic] installations in the country.”
  • Nevada. “Nevada has slowly grown its solar market every year to now register as both a top U.S. state for installed solar and solar jobs.”
  • New Jersey. The state has “strong net metering policies and good values for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs)—a process that allows homeowners to earn cash every year for the energy their solar systems are producing.”

Here are the five fastest-growing states in terms of solar power:

  • Utah. Utah has one of the best state incentives available, with an added subsidy of up to $2,000, and homeowners are taking advantage. But the incentive expires at the end of 2017, so the industry has seen a surge all year.
  • Florida. The state rejected a amendment that would have hindered the solar industry, and major price declines are projected for the next few years.
  • Texas. When you think of Texas, you think of oil, but “Texas now holds three of the top 20 cities for solar power in the U.S. in terms of consumer interest and favorable pricing.”
  • Georgia. There has been nearly a 70 percent drop in the cost of solar over the past five years.
  • Indiana. Energy Sage reports a “dramatic surge in consumer interest in 2017,” making it a hot solar market.

It’s good that someone is saving money, because 2017’s extreme weather events, greatly exacerbated by climate change, are costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and the price tag will only keep climbing. A new report from the Government Accountability Office found that “Climate change impacts are already costing the federal government money, and these costs will likely increase over time as the climate continues to change.” Here’s a highlight from the report:

For example, for 2020 through 2039, one study estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion in annual coastal property damages from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms. Also, under this study, the Southeast likely faces greater effects than other regions because of coastal property damages.

The examples of damages would hit all areas of the country by 2100, and include:

  • Decreased shellfish harvests (Northwest).
  • Increased road damage (Northern states).
  • Increased damage to urban drainage systems.
  • Increased wildfires (Western states).
  • Changes in water supply and demand (mainly California).
  • Increased energy demand (mainly Southern states).
  • Increased heat-related mortality (mainly Southern states).
  • Increased coastal infrastructure damage (mainly Southeast states).
  • Decreased agricultural yields (widespread).

The only benefits predicted from climate change were decreased cold-related mortality in Northern states and a boost in agricultural yields in some areas.

Congress has just approved $36.5 billion in disaster relief because of the recent hurricanes and wildfires. This is on top of $205 billion for disaster relief over the past decade. The U.S. also has spent $90 billion for crop and flood insurance, $34 billion for wildland fire management, and $28 billion for repairs to federal facilities, according to the GAO report.

In case anyone is surprised that an agency connected to the Trump administration actually did research on climate change, the GAO report was requested by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.

The GAO report’s recommendation is as follows:

The appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Council on Environmental Quality, Office and Management and Budget, and Office of Science and Technology Policy, should use information on the potential economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate risks facing the federal government and craft appropriate federal responses. Such responses could include establishing a strategy to identify, prioritize, and guide federal investments to enhance resilience against future disasters.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Not when the Interior Department is scrubbing any mention of climate change from its five-year strategic plan, instead stressing “energy dominance” over any kind of conservation and calling for more drilling and mining on public land. Not when the Environmental Protection Agency is forcing its top scientists to withdraw from a discussion panel at a climate change conference. And not when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is yet again adding to his security detail, causing costs for his personal security to skyrocket (now up to $2 million a year in salaries) while the rest of the agency’s budget is being slashed.

When it comes to solar power and renewable energy, it’s obvious that the rest of the world has more sense than the Trump administration.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Oct. 29, 2017.

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