After I wrote the first column on this topic, the Arizona Republic rolled out a creditable series on solar energy in the state. Among other things, it examined the recent setbacks solar has faced; did a close-up on what will be one of the nation's largest solar arrays on three square miles near Gila Bend, the $2 billion Solana Generating Station, and the forces that will challenge solar, such as cheap natural gas. It properly points out that Phoenix's two utilities get a small fraction of their energy from solar, and the "action" is on rooftop installations for relatively well-off house-owners — and even here the numbers are small. One is left to wonder who is running a hustle, a la the alt-fuels scandal from the early 2000s...
In any event, my intention has always been to dig deeper. The alpha tragedy is that the solar power movement was born in Arizona and the state let it get away. The International Solar Energy Society, one of the premier organizations in the field, was founded in 1954 in Phoenix. The original name was the Association for Applied Solar Energy. Among the founders were executives of Arizona Public Service. More than 1,000 scientists, engineers and government officials from 36 different countries attended the first two meetings in Phoenix and Tucson. The organization went on to become accredited by the United Nations and was based at ASU until 1970, when the headquarters moved to Melbourne and finally to Freiburg, Germany. The early research gathered by the organization is still in the ASU library collections. But the headquarters, brainpower and influence is long gone.
Neither fact is surprising. Old Phoenix had a progressive streak and an ambitious nature. This was before changes in the economy and a zombie-like focus on adding population and housing took over everything. Yet solar energy was very primitive and a gallon of gasoline cost 21 cents ($1.85 in today's money). There was no way solar could compete. It's still difficult. And the leaders of the state were primarily focused on winning the Central Arizona Project. But when people wonder why sunny Arizona isn't the center of the world's solar power efforts, the answer is simple and sad: It once was.
The sweet spot for solar is in research and development, as well as in establishing companies whose headquarters provide high-wage jobs and attract both talent and capital. It is leveraging this talent to develop a world-class cluster in renewable energy. With a few exceptions, Arizona has failed. For example, not one state university is among the top 10 "cleantech" powerhouses, universities that are getting the most grants and doing the path-breaking research that can then be transferred into the private sector. Few major solar companies are actually headquartered in Arizona. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory should be located in Phoenix; instead, it is in Golden, Colo. Arizona lacks any major federal laboratory, and these are among the fundamental building blocks of a major tech hub. Don't look for Sens. Flake or McCain to lead the effort to establish one. Don't expect a Tea Party Legislature to fund Science Foundation Arizona in establishing a world-class research effort. These days, the Phoenix City Council's idea of thinking big is repealing the "food tax."
Manufacturing is largely a dead-end. China has put all its muscle behind cornering the market for making photovoltaics; Taiwan is also a powerhouse. American manufacturers can't effectively compete, especially given the unfair trade framework that Washington tolerates. The EU pushed back to protect its solar manufacturers. The United States has filed a few complaints, but there's little hope many solar factories will thrive domestically. The result is that most solar employment in Arizona is in short-term construction projects of plants and installation of rooftop installations. You play small ball, you get small ball. America spends vast sums subsidizing fossil fuels, including using the military as a global petroleum police force. On renewables, not so much. The perfectly understandable failure of Solyndra — for failures are a natural part of the discovery and enterprise process — is a scandal that has paralyzed dSi. And, by the way, Solyndra was based not in Phoenix but in the Bay Area. Not for nothing is the European Union, and especially cloudy Germany, the world leader in solar research and power generation.
Finally, I must confess to a good deal of solar skepticism. So-called passive solar, the panels on rooftops, can provide some power, especially for water heaters. It's obviously effective, or APS wouldn't be trying to "tax" its solar customers. But running air conditioning in the Arizona summer, especially in hundreds of thousands of mass-produced tract houses and apartments, requires massive, dependable electricity generation. Even making a small contribution to the electricity required demands enormous, and highly invasive, solar "farms."
For example, the Solana plant claims to have the ability to provide power for 70,000 houses. That's not much — and the number might not hold up in peak-use conditions — when compared with other sources. And it takes up three square miles of land. Put another way, it will have a total generating capacity of 280 megawatts. The Agua Caliente Solar Project near Yuma claims to be the world's largest photovoltaic plant and has a planned peak capacity of 397 megawatts on nearly 4 square miles. By contrast, Salt River Project's 521-megawatt (natural-gas-fueled) Kyrene Generating Station sits on a smidgen of land in Tempe. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station averages 3.3 gigawatts on 6.25 square miles of land.
A big danger: Rural Arizona is being used as a dumping ground for unsightly solar generating stations for California, a state with much tougher land-use restrictions but higher mandates for renewable energy. Agua Caliente, for example, will sell its power to Pacific Gas & Electric. It's not just private parcels but public lands. For example, 14 projects are pending on Bureau of Land Management acreage. These massive solar arrays risk ruining pristine desert. I'm not arguing that none should be built. But the costs and benefits should be more carefully weighed. The Sonoran Desert is one of the most beautiful and majestic places on the planet. The state lacks an environmental ethic or strong environmental groups. It does constantly risk some new land-and-extraction hustle. Resistance to destroying swaths of the Mojave Desert has been stronger in California. More questions have been raised about building such large footprints to produce relatively small amounts of electricity. In addition, many solar arrays require water for cooling or, at the least, to wash dust from the photovoltaic cells for optimal performance. The group Solar Done Right has published a report on the many environmental problems caused by these solar farms on public lands, which are largely going unaddressed.
Solar power won't power cars, and the American "lifestyle" of long, single-occupancy automobile driving is one of the biggest consumers of energy and causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we paved over every acre of the desert for solar farms, the electric car isn't taking off. Fracking and tar sands are making petroleum relatively affordable, although expensive by historical standards. And people are driving less and buying fewer cars. Nor will solar in the Southwest be effective in improving overall air quality. Finally, we must always question the energy-in/energy-out calculus behind all fuels, not just alternatives but even some fracking and other unconventional drilling techniques. All require fossil fuels for manufacture, transportation and assembly, or extraction and refining. Do they create more energy than they consume? Many do not. (Much of the media are clueless about EIEO).
The solar situation is complex and evolving. It has a place in our energy future. So, too, do conservation and ending sprawl, as well as better funding for trains and transit. The most toxic conceit behind most of our energy "news" is that we can somehow keep doing the same things, sustain the unsustainable.
Had Arizona been a different state, it would have given cities the ability to mandate not just solar panels on every new house but designs that maximize energy conservation and shade. But had it been that different state, it would have maximized the commanding heights of solar: World-class research, development, talent, tech transfer, capital and startup climate.
Arizona was never going to be "the Saudi Arabia of Solar." If solar were that efficient, Saudi Arabia would be the Saudi Arabia of Solar. Instead, that benighted nation was blessed and cursed with cheap oil, easy to reach and inexpensive to refine. Arizona, and specifically Phoenix, should have been something akin to a Silicon Valley of solar. It didn't happen. As is so often the case, we coulda been a contender.