Even Donald Trump’s solar tariffs and desire to prop up the coal industry can’t stop renewable energy. A solar auction in Nevada just yielded the cheapest solar project in the country.
It broke a record that was set last week. Not only that, the price the plant will operate at is cheaper than new natural gas and coal plants. While the sunny weather in Nevada and federal tax credits certainly play a role, it’s also part of a clear trend of solar power becoming cost-competitive with and even starting to beat fossil fuels.
The project in question is the Eagle Shadow Mountain Solar Farm, which will begin operating in 2021. The farm will have a generating capacity of 300 megawatts, enough to power about 210,000 American homes. But it’s the price part that’s eye-popping. It will operate at a flat rate of $23.76 per megawatt-hour over the course of a 25-year power purchasing agreement (the term for a contract between an electricity generator and utility who buys it). On the surface, that price may not mean a lot to you if you’re not an energy nerd, but it’s a huge deal.
“On their face, they’re less than a third the price of building a new coal or natural gas power plant,” Ramez Naam, an energy expert and lecturer at Singularity University, told Earther in an email. “In fact, building these plants is cheaper than just operating an existing coal or natural gas plant.”
There’s a 30 percent federal investment tax credit for solar projects that helps drive down the cost of this and other solar projects. But Naam said even if you take away that credit, “these bids, un-subsidized, are still cheaper than any new coal or gas plants, and possibly cheaper than operating existing plants.”
The price and size of the plant handily beats the cheapest confirmed solar project in the country, a title that formerly belonged to a piddly 30 megawatt farm in Arizona that was part of an effort to replace the aging Navajo Generating Station (some tribal members aren’t happy). That project was auctioned for the low, low price of $24.99 per megawatt-hour over the duration of its 20-year contract.
The Nevada auction also included a number of projects that link up utility-scale solar with batteries. Mastering solar plus storage will be critical for renewables to truly overtake fossil fuels, since they only generate power when it’s sunny or when the wind blows.
“Three years ago you almost never saw batteries as part of a new solar or wind project,” Naam said. “In 2018, we’ve seen battery storage frequently show up as part of these bids. Energy storage is becoming the new normal with solar bids.”
All these projects have one important have one important factor in common: being located in the sunny Southwest. That geography absolutely plays a role in keeping prices low. But increasingly efficient technology also helps, and Naam said these prices are a bellwether of what’s to come in the next few years in places like Texas, California, and Colorado.
They also show that the efforts of the Trump administration to prop up fossil fuels at the expense of renewables aren’t enough to push solar out to sea. The tariffs that Trump levied earlier this year against cheap solar panels imported from China could eventually dampen installations. Naam said they add roughly 10 percent to the price of utility-scale projects, but “at most, they move the price of solar back by about a year.”
And they haven’t slowed solar deployments yet. A report released by the Solar Energy Industries Association on Tuesday revealed that 55 percent of all U.S. electricity generating capacity installed in the first quarter of 2018 was solar. A whopping 2.5 gigawatts of solar was added, marking the 10th straight quarter where more than 2 gigawatts of capacity added. The report also noted that total installed capacity could double in the next five years.
All this is good news, but the transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables needs to happen even faster to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.