by Will Greene
A few weeks ago I asked clean energy advocates to make external costs a mantra. The concept of external costs is simple - when utilities and power plant owners dump pollution into our air and atmosphere for free, they “externalize” costs to the hardworking taxpayer- who pick up the tab in the form of hospital bills, asthma medication, lost work days, premature death, climate chaos ect. The process allows utilities and fossil fuel industry players to offer artificially low prices for their electricity and to (literally) make a killing from coal and natural gas. This fundamental economic dynamic means coal is the most subsidized form of electricity known to mankind.
While the external cost argument is a panacea for clean energy advocates, it is actually mostly unnecessary in Arizona thanks to our abundant sunshine. We now know, thanks to a comprehensive report by Arizona Public Service (APS), that electricity from solar pv is substantially cheaper than electricity from coal and nuclear, while cost-competitive with electricity from natural gas - even without including external costs in the discussion.
Take a moment to let that settle.
The report did include the assumption of a gradual federal carbon price coming into effect sometime in the latter half of this decade. Given recent tough-talk on climate from the White House, this is a fair assumption. However the thrust of the report remains - solar has reached cost-parity, even cost advantage.
This of course raises the question, “If solar is so economical, why are Arizona’s utilities aggressively acquiring coal-fired facilities such as APS with Four Corners and SRP with Navajo Generating Station?” Antiquated power plants such as Four Corners and NGS are already fully paid off by ratepayers, and therefore generate “cheap” electricity (“cheap” only if you don’t account for external costs). The APS resource plan compares the cost of new power plants “forecasted in 2015 dollars, including allowances for funds used during construction.” Solar has a hard time competing with existing facilities, built in the 70’s, and paid off by ratepayers. But in a cost comparison of new generation, solar wins in Arizona.
Keep this fact in your rhetorical toolkit for use in your next encounter with a foot-dragging, nuclear-touting, know-it-all, postulating that solar is great, but we just can’t afford it yet. Baloney. Bring on the sun.