This essay aims to dispel common and enduring misunderstandings about solar energy and show that this resource can deliver an abundant, reliable, and affordable energy future to New York State with a minimum environmental footprint.
Abundance: The sun is a giant energy resource for planet earth. It reliably powers the weather and life without us paying much attention to it. The planet receives as much solar energy in two hours as used annually by all the economies of the world. In one week, the planet receives as much solar energy as the combined reasonably assured reserves of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium could ever produce.
A practical facet of solar abundance is the availability of the technology that can effectively tap into the solar resource and transform it into a usable form: electricity. This technology is photovoltaics, or PV for short. Remarkably, the amount of PV deployed in the world has grown at a nearly constant annual rate of 30% since the 1980s, spanning a wide range of economic and political environments.
The underlying reason for this stable growth is the technology’s progressive and systematic improvement in efficiency, versatility, and cost, enabling it to capture new markets and grow. It is widely believed that this efficiency/versatility/cost improvement trend will continue for many years as the PV technology is still very young. Interestingly, projecting the 30% annual growth rate into the future would yield enough PV deployed to power all the economies of the world by the early 2040s.
Affordability: The authoritative reports from the Lazard Bank, the world’s leading financial advisory and asset management firm, periodically compare the [unsubsidized] electricity generation cost of all technologies capable of producing electricity. The Lazard numbers are based on a survey of newly planned and commissioned power plants around the world. Over the last couple of years utility scale PV has become the least expensive of all electricity-generating technologies. Solar electricity is now considerably cheaper than electricity from new coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants (4-6 times cheaper for nuclear). Most financial and institutional experts agree that PV electricity will become even cheaper in the coming years. The NREL technology road map envisions a 50% or more decrease in cost within the next fifteen years.
When also considering that a new utility-scale PV plant can be built and operate within a few months versus many years for nuclear technology (notwithstanding well documented construction delays and cost overruns), the economic/affordability argument in favor of PV is a strong one.
Reliability: A strong and persistent argument against PV is solar energy’s intermittent nature. Like wind, the solar resource is a ‘run-of-the weather’ Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) resource, and the question of what to do when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow is a valid one. However, this question ignores the effective solutions that are taking shape to transform the VREs into ‘firm power’ generators that can reliably meet electrical demand nonstop.
Firm power enabling solutions include energy storage (e.g., batteries), the optimal blending of wind and solar (two renewable resources that complement each other well) and retaining a small amount of flexibility with conventional dispatchable generation (that could eventually be switched from natural gas to 100% renewable and carbon-neutral e-fuels with a negligible impact on the electricity cost bottom line). Most importantly (and counterintuitively) the most effective solution consists in overbuilding the VREs and, by design, shedding some of the energy they produce – a strategy termed implicit storage.
These firm power enablers have been shown to be effective at bringing the cost of 24/365, firm, pure PV and/or wind electricity at levels that will be competitive with conventional electricity presently traded on energy markets. The International Energy Agency estimates that most economies of the world, (including New York and all US states) can count on future firm 100% renewable electric power generation (with a majority of PV) at a cost of 3-7 cents per kWh, a number that will remain stable and last for generations.
Environmental footprint: While the PV technology and its firm power enablers (batteries) are not free of environmental concerns, solar generation is considerably more benign than the climate, pollution, and accident risks associated with conventional fossil fuel and nuclear power generation. The growing trend toward full recyclability of batteries and PVs should alleviate any large-scale long-term PV deployment concerns — Rochester-based Li-Cycle firm is an example of the emerging businesses focusing on this growing recycling market.
An important environmental concern associated with PV deployment is the physical footprint they will occupy to produce the quantities of electricity that economies like New York will need. This concern has been fueling a growing opposition to solar farm deployment, particularly in upstate New York. While this is a legitimate concern, it does not come close to the exaggerated scare often advanced by detractors (e.g., PV deployments displacing food crops and starving New Yorkers). It is important to put numbers in perspective. A recent study I co-authored shows that, to deliver a 100% renewable PV/wind future for all of New York’s energy sectors (electricity, buildings and transportation), state-of-the-art PV plants would have to cover 300-500 square miles.
This is a large number indeed, but that amounts to less than 1% of the State’s area. Considering that a large fraction of deployments can occur on already built-up and/or impervious surfaces without loss of function (e.g., roofs, parking lots, reservoirs, power lines’ rights of ways), the amount to be deployed on farms and open land would remain reasonable – we have estimated that a 100% renewable New York solution would require only 1-3% of the State’s farm/open land.
Solar farm deployment is important for several reasons: (1) it produces much needed revenues to upstate communities and often struggling farmers; (2) PV farming and crop growing can be complementary and work in synergy as increasingly demonstrated by fast emerging agri-voltaic solutions; (3) PV farming is economically very effective and can come online quickly. It is also enlightening to contrast PV farming with an existing, widespread energy farming industry: industrial corn ethanol farming that occupies a quarter of a million acres in New York (14 million acres in the US). Ethanol crops are 50 to 200 times less space efficient than PV farms, i.e., one acre of PV produces 50 to 200 times more clean energy than one acre of corn ethanol without requiring any pesticides.
More information, resources and contacts about PV deployments Upstate New York is available at https://usesusa.org/. This app also should be of interest to drill into PV deployment numbers for those interested in what-if scenarios.
Richard Perez leads solar energy research at U. Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He has served multiple terms on the board of the American Solar Energy Society and as associate editor of Solar Energy Journal; he currently serves on the board of United Solar Energy Supporters. Dr. Perez heads an International Energy Agency task force on firm renewable power; in 2022, he received the CleanTech Business Club’s 2022 Visionary Scientist distinction. He has authored over 250 journal articles, conference papers, books and chapters.s