The Hole in Brian Potts' WSJ Critique of the "Solar-Panel Craze"

05/27/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

In his Sunday Wall Street Journal commentary on May 17, Brian Potts suggests that cost is the bottom line in the electric customer shift to solar, and that solar costs too much. But his defense of the utility's view of energy costs leaves a big hole in the big picture: the value of solar energy.

First, his cost estimates don't add up. He claims utility-scale solar costs 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, but Vote Solar reported that the Palo Alto, CA, municipal utility signed solar contracts for 6.9 cents nearly two years ago. Prices fell 13% in 2014 alone, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The attack on rooftop solar also falls short. The break-even price for a rooftop system in Palo Alto is 10.8 cents over 25 years (calculated with NREL's System Adivsor Model), 50% higher--not 3.5 times higher-- than the utility scale solar array. Mr Potts may be right that net metering isn't the perfect policy for compensating solar producing customers, but that's because it's a compromise accounting method to accurately track electricity sent back to the grid. This was done because it is the easiest way for the utilities to accommodate solar with their old meters and antiquated billing systems.

Net metering and Mr Potts both ignore the value of solar energy: to an electric grid that favors energy production in the afternoon and on hot, sunny days; as a zero-volatility fuel source; as a hedge against environmental compliance costs; as a near-zero water consumer in an era of drought. He ignores the numerous state studies that show a net benefit from net metering.

Most notably, Mr Potts ignores the opportunity cost of propping up a dying monopoly business model to fend off innovative entrepreneurs and customers. The utilities are loath to allow such competition, but letting them cling to it is a cost we can't afford.

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Photo credit: Bart Speelman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 license)