Once again the green media are being transported into flights of ecstasy over the fact that the US solar industry now employs more people than the US oil, gas and coal industries. The data, however, show that the solar industry contributes virtually nothing to US energy supply, which is still filled dominantly by fossil fuels. Reviews also show that the problem of accurately estimating annual US solar generation has still not been solved.
First we will take a brief look at the US solar industry. How many companies are involved in it? It seems that no one has ever counted them, but as illustrated in Figure 1 they probably number in the thousands. (An interesting feature is the absence of solar companies in much of North and South Dakota. Could this have to do with the fact that these are the most productive areas of the Bakken Shale?):
Second, where are the existing solar installations? Rooftop arrays are present in varying amounts almost everywhere, but Figure 2 shows where the commercial arrays are (data again from SEIA.)
Figure 3 shows a map of US solar potential. Comparison with Figure 2 shows that except for Southern California and a few arrays in Arizona and New Mexico almost all of the commercial solar arrays are outside the areas of maximum solar potential – an example of subsidies in action.
Figure 4 now shows the employment statistics that have driven the greens into a tizzy. In 2015 there were 185,000 people employed in the coal industry, 190,000 employed in the oil and gas industry but 210,000 employed in solar, up from 170,000 in 2014 (data from Bloomberg):
And Figure 5 shows what 170,000 solar industry employees had achieved through the end of 2014 – a huge increase in US solar installed capacity and a factor-of-three decrease in costs since 2009:
But here’s the catch. Despite its job creation record the US solar industry still produces no energy worth speaking of. Before we can get into this question, however, we have some data issues to resolve:
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA, Table 10.1) gives the following US energy consumption data by source for 2015. Note that Mtoe = million tonnes oil equivalent:
- Oil consumption: 884.3 million tonnes
- Natural gas consumption: 708.0 Mtoe
- Oil & Gas consumption combined: 1592.3 Mtoe
- Coal consumption: 390.3 Mtoe
- Total US consumption: 2438.2 Mtoe
- Solar consumption: ? Mtoe
Why is there a question mark where solar consumption should be? Because other sources give different numbers. Here are some examples for US 2014 solar generation, with details as to how I converted them into Mtoe:
EIA: 420 trillion btu . Crude oil 5.9 million btu/bbl = 71 million bbl = 71/7.33 = 9.7 Mtoe (the number missing from the list above).
EIA: 18.1 TWh (from Wikipedia) Using the BP 4.4 conversion factor = 4.1 Mtoe. (The derivation of the 4.4 factor is not given but BP uses it to convert all generation sources from TWh to Mtoe.)
National Renewable Energy Laboratory ( NREL, same source as above): 32.5 TWh = 7.4 Mtoe using the BP conversion factor.
BP 2015 Statistical Review = 18.5 TWh and 4.2 Mtoe (separately tabulated).
Obviously the problem of accurately measuring US solar generation has not yet been solved.
So which of the four estimates did I use? None of them. I made my own estimate based on installed capacity and average US solar PV capacity factors, which are listed by region in my earlier post on solar load factors. Figure 6 shows where different areas of the US plot in relation to other countries and regions for reference:
I estimated 2015 solar installed capacity by averaging the 2014 and 2015 end-year capacities given by Greentechmedia and got (25,634 + 18,348)/2 = 21,991MW (say 22,000MW). I have some confidence in this estimate because it includes both distributed and non-distributed capacity and because the Greentechmedia annual installed capacity estimates since 2000 are closely comparable to those given by BP. I then applied an annual capacity factor of 16.4%, the weighted average of some hundreds of years of operating data from 84 solar installations of all types and sizes in the US lower 48, again using data from the solar load factors post. The average is weighted to allow for the fact that about 75% of total US solar generation comes from California and the Desert Southwest.
With 22,000MW of capacity and a capacity factor of 16.4% we get 31.6TWh of solar generation in 2015, which according to BP represents 7.2Mtoe. This number is bracketed by the four 2014 estimates shown above, so I ran with it.
Having put the data problem behind us we can now calculate the energy, in terms of tonnes of oil or oil equivalent, that an employee in the solar industry generates in comparison with the energy generated by employees in the oil/gas and coal industries (the EIA data are used for oil, gas and coal):
- Oil & gas (1592.3 Mtoe, 185,000 employees) 8,607 tonnes/employee
- Coal (390.3 Mtoe, 190,000 employees) 2,054 tonnes/employee
- Solar (7.2 Mtoe, 210,000 employees) 34 tonnes/employee
We see that the average US oil and gas industry employee produces 250 times as much annual energy as the average US solar industry employee and that the average US coal industry employee produces 60 times as much. The US solar industry still contributes less than 1% of total US energy demand, compared to 36% for oil, 29% for gas and 16% for coal, and gas and coal power are of course available on demand, which solar isn’t. The solar industry’s job creation record is impressive, but based on these results one has to wonder whether the jobs were worth creating.
And how much has the US paid to fill less than a percent of its energy supply with solar power? I can’t find a total expenditure number (maybe someone else has one) but it’s reported that taxpayers paid more than $150 billion over the last five years alone financing solar and other renewables projects, and the installation cost of the US’s plus 25,000MW of solar capacity (it continues to increase) would have been on the order of $100 billion. So we can assume that total solar expenditures to date are somewhere up in the low hundreds of billions range.
But why should any country in its right mind spend so much to add less than 1% to its annual energy production? The answer, of course, lies in the misguided efforts of the US federal and state governments, prompted by the green lobby, to stimulate the development of this “resource of the future”, which solar is still believed to be even by people who should know better (NREL sees 40% solar penetration as a realistic goal). Moreover, solar stimulus efforts have now reached the point where they can only be described as being out of control, as evidenced by the following quote:
According to the Government Accountability Office, federal government support for solar energy is massive, with over 345 different federal initiatives covering over 1,500 projects in 20 federal agencies–the Pentagon has 63 solar programs, the highest among the agencies, followed by the Interior Department, with 37 programs and the Energy Department (DOE) with 34 solar programs. States also have also heavily subsidized the solar industry by offering tax breaks and 538 rebate programs. Twenty states have personal tax credits related to solar products, 18 states have corporate tax credit and deduction programs, and 14 states and Puerto Rico offer taxpayer-funded grants to support solar electricity.
Clearly the US solar industry needs to be reined in. But there is hope. As noted in the recent death of rooftop solar post one of the underpinnings of US rooftop solar – net metering – is coming under attack and at the end of this year the federal solar tax credit is scheduled to expire. US taxpayers should make sure it does.