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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2012

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Book of Note

Bob Johnstone, Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn from Germany's Success in Harnessing Clean Energy

Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.

Whether an approach that, as in the case of the book under review, is pervasively anecdotal, or a treatment more systematically organized, a balanced account of solar energy's standing and promise needs to deal, at a minimum, with three dimensions:

The principles and technical problems governing the conversion of solar radiation to useful energy—whether in the form of photovoltaic (pv) or thermal application.

The prevailing and prospective costs of solar power and an indication of how such costs compare with other energy forms (both renewable and nonrenewable) against which solar must compete in the commercial marketplace.

The rationale for, and experience with, public policy initiatives to ease the penetration of solar in the energy mix.

The author meets the first of these three conditions with a generally reader-friendly, if abbreviated, account of solar's scientific basis and development over its historic and recent time span. The two ensuing dimensions are handled less satisfactorily. Let me turn, first, to economics, and second, to policy issues.

An unavoidable step in assessing the status of solar energy is to face up to the considerable gap that remains in solar's drive to become a serious contender in the electric power sweepstakes. Notwithstanding Mr. Johnstone's ebullient and somewhat unsubtle tour of solar power, it is instructive to contemplate the accompanying 2011 DOE estimate of comparative electric generating costs for U.S. plants expected to come on line in 2016.

It is genuinely puzzling that Mr. Johnstone's solar reconnaissance is so conspicuously innocent of the realities conveyed by the DOE and similar estimates. Note how onshore wind power, its most widespread embodiment, continues for the present to strikingly outcompete solar electricity. Although the author is bent on proving how the United States “dropped the ball” in solar development to Germany and other players, both the technology and economics characterizing different electricity systems are pretty ubiquitous. Thus, in 2010, Germany's electricity profile showed more than three times as much power coming from wind as from solar.

The comparative costs just tabulated will undoubtedly shift over time as continued technological progress and policies targeting the imperative of a low-carbon future seize hold. And Mr. Johnstone's book does not neglect those drivers for change. On the policy front, for example, the author accords a major place to so-called “feed-in tariffs,” under which regulatory authorities enable a utility to average the costs of the company's (frequently mandated) solar and other noncompetitive resource inputs into its overall system costs, thus sparing electricity customers getting their power from, say, a wind farm from the shock of finding an unexpectedly steep electric bill in their mailbox.

But keep in mind that a feed-in tariff is neither inherently good nor bad. As a pragmatically defensible way of facilitating the introduction of a governmentally sanctioned subsidy, its social benefits have to be judged in terms of its magnitude and—as with alternative policy instruments such as production or investment tax credits—the open-endedness of its duration. A painless feed-in tariff is no more credible than a free lunch. Thus, with particular reference to Mr. Johnstone's “star performer,” Germany announced in February 2012 that the premium feed-in rates for solar would be cut in a succession of steps, beginning with a more-than-20-percent reduction in March.

Table: Real Levelized Costs (cents/kWh Expressed in 2009 Dollars)

Natural gas, combined cycle


Advanced nuclear




Wind onshore


Wind offshore


Solar pv


Solar thermal


While solar trails wind power in its economic attractiveness, both renewables face technical hurdles that need to be overcome en route to commercial viability. Probably none is more critical than the matter of storage, which (through advanced batteries or other devices) would enable these systems to move from their status of intermittent availability to something closer to base-load power. Meeting that challenge—somewhat lightly explored by Mr. Johnstone—surely does argue for sustained governmental research and development (R&D) support, the more so if competing fossil-based fuels continue to enjoy too much of a free ride in their impact on the world's atmospheric environment.

Joel Darmstadter, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future, Washington DC

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