Solar Subsidies are Saturated

H. Sterling Burnett | Jun 28, 2011



Solar photovoltaic is among the fastest growing segments of the energy market.  Globally, grid-connected solar capacity increased at an average annual rate of 60 percent from 2004 to 2009, faster than any other energy source. 

However, solar power still accounts for less than one-half of one percent of the world's electric power output and, even with significant subsidies, solar power is substantially more expensive than conventional power sources in most locations. All other factors being equal, if solar is to become a significant power source, it must compete with other energy sources on price.  

Currently, even with subsidies solar energy costs between $0.22 per kilowatt-hour and $0.30 per kilowatt-hour.  By contrast, the average cost of electricity nationwide is expected to remain roughly $0.11 per kilowatt-hour through 2015.

And how big are the subsidies? Per unit of energy produced, solar is among the most highly subsidized power sources.

According to the Energy Information Administration:


  •  Natural gas and petroleum subsidies amount to $0.25 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.
  •  Coal subsidies amount to $0.44 per megawatt-hour.
  •  Nuclear power subsidies amount to $1.59 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.
  •  Solar subsidies amount to $24.34 per megawatt-hour.


There are additional state subsidies and mandates for the use of renewable energy sources in the form of the increasingly popular renewable portfolio standards.  

Favorable tax treatments, price supports, direct subsidies and state renewable portfolio standards have encouraged private investment in solar power.  The result: In the United States, solar electricity production grew 55 percent from 2004 to 2008, and 15.5 percent in 2009 alone.   Public and private investment has encouraged innovation and increased production efficiency, reducing the cost of solar panels considerably.   

Thus, over the past 15 years, the cost of solar photovoltaic systems fell an average of 4 percent per year, whereas the price of electric power has generally risen.  In 2009 alone, prices for solar panels dropped approximately 40 percent, largely because of the tremendous growth in China's solar panel production, which resulted in a glut in the market. This shift in production of solar panels to China caused the cost per kilowatt-hour for solar cells to fall.  Moreover, the efficiency of solar cells has improved.  

As a result, a November 2010, Energy Information Administration report, "Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Electricity Generation Plants," showed that the costs for natural gas plants remained largely unchanged since 2008. But the capital costs for new coal-fired, nuclear and even wind power plants increased considerably - on average, 25 percent higher for coal-fired and nuclear power plants, and 21 percent higher for wind farms.  By contrast, solar fell by 25 percent because of increasing economies of scale and falling component costs.   

The Competition

However, even with increased costs associated with coal, nuclear and wind power plants, and substantial declines in the cost of solar, the EIA finds that there is no location where solar's capital costs match or beat any competing electric generating technology, with the exception of nuclear power.

Capital costs are only one factor in determining the viability of competing generating technologies.  Arguably, the annualized cost of newly built electricity generating facilities is the most important measure of the viability of solar power.  

Solar's annualized cost is significantly higher than almost every other generating technology, primarily because of three factors:  a low capacity factor (the relatively small amount of energy it can be expected to deliver daily), higher than average transmission cost and a shorter useful life than comparable facilities.  For instance, using EIA data, the Institute for Energy Research, estimates, the average annualized cost of an advanced combined cycle natural gas is $63.10 per megawatt-hour.  The average annualized cost of an advanced nuclear plant is $113.90 per megawatt-hour.  The average annualized cost of an advanced coal-fired power plant (with carbon capture technology) is $136.20 per megawatt-hour.  The average annualized cost of a solar photovoltaic plant is $210.70 per megawatt-hour.

Even accounting for differences in geography, climate and labor costs, for solar power to be competitive with conventional generating technologies in the near future would require continued substantial government support and, as importantly, the expectation that such support will continue in order to secure long-term financing and investment.  

And there's the rub, under the economic conditions facing governments around the world, the current level of support for solar developments is unlikely to continue.  

The House of Representatives substantially reduced funding for various renewable technologies in its proposed budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011.  Though all these cuts might not be enacted, less support in this and coming years seems likely from a Congress interested in reducing the budget deficit and national debt.

Support in Europe is already declining.  The European Union has been the leader in installing solar.  Indeed, from 2007 through 2010, EU countries accounted for more than 70 percent of solar energy demand.  

For example, Germany's renewable energy act required utilities to pay generous prices - called feed in tariffs - for electricity produced by renewables.  As a result, solar power grew from 6 percent of generating capacity in 2000 to 16 percent in 2009.   However, because of fiscal constraints as a result of the global economic recession, the German government has cut tariffs for large solar power facilities by 25 percent and for individual roof-top solar energy production by 15 percent.  

Spain, meanwhile, is reducing support for existing plants by more than 30 percent and for new plants by 45 percent.  France, the United Kingdom and Canada either have or are considering cutting their subsidies to solar power. 

Even demand driven by renewable portfolio standards are under threat.  Some state legislatures are considering transforming renewable portfolio standards into clean energy standards, which would allow natural gas, clean coal or nuclear generated electricity to count toward the overall energy goal.  If this occurs, solar demand will further decline.  

Thus, it seems unlikely that solar power costs will continue to decline at the historically high rates they have in the past couple of years.  The decline in solar generated electricity prices will arguably return to its historic average of 4 percent per year.  If it does, all else equal, it would not become cost competitive in most locations until after 2020. 

Dr. Burnett is a Senior Fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a non-partisan, non-profit research institute based in Dallas, Texas 

Related Topics


Hidden costs

All energy sources have hidden costs and benefits -- in economic terms, public bads and goods -- however, we at the NCPA have written extensively concerning the grossly exagerated health costs from fossil fuel use, under current clean air standards and the vastly underappreciated human health costs of tightening the standards which raises the price of energy.  You can find our work on these matters here:




How about reading the "Hidden Cost of Energy" from the National Academy of Sciences. Coal cost $63 billion more than what people pay for it in the form of sickness and death from coal particles. How about that for a subsidy. Let's not forget about the billions from low cost construction loans and tax breaks like the Foreign Credit Tax for oil. Nuclear? How about giving the same insurance subsidies to solar as we do for Nuclear. Economic comparisons are only valid when all things are equal. Let's strip away all energy subsidies and see where we stand. Solar would be a clear victor.  

Responses welcome


Questions on assumptions

Your estimate of the cost of solar PV at $210 per MWh is significanlty lower than estimates I come up with for PV here in Oregon.  Does your estimate include subsides / tax credits?  What are your cost per MW and capacity factor assumptions?  Your cost estimate may be correct for PV in sunnier locations than Oregon, where we only get 12% capacity factor from PV on an annual basis west of the Cascade Mountains.  PV loacted in the desert southwest where there is double the annual capacity factor will cost half as much. 

Any insights appreciated. 

Eric Hiaasen

Questions on assumptions

Estimates do vary widely based on region. The $210 is a national average.  In a longer study of which this paper is excerpted I detail some of the regional variations and cite the documents or models used to demostrate regional variation.  You might find more pertinent information to your direct situation here:




The atmosphere is also becomnig "saturated" with CO2 from fossil fired plants that are not charged for the damage they do. Our atmosphere is treated like a free sewage dump. If this cost was accounted for, solar could easily compete with other sources, including nuclear.


Solar energy also includes solar thermal!

Rooftop Solar Thermal (RST) is an older technology yet reaches efficiencies of 80% whereas solar electric (PV) at best hits 17% overall. RST has always been the "Red Headed Step Child" of the solar industry as Mr. Burnett demonstrates in this article. There are presently programs where RST is displacing electrical usage, such as in Lakeland, Florida.  The energy discussion, particularly pertaining to RST is often excluded or lumped together with solar electric systems thus creating further ignorence of RST for our National energy solution. I would be very interested how RST compares in the equations Mr. Burnett uses in this article, I think it would help bring to the table opportunities for solar energy that has not escaped countries like China.


Larry Mapes

Valverde Energy Inc.


In my column, “Solar Subsidies are saturated,” in today’s Energy Biz Insider, I made an error.  In the fourth paragraph from the end where I discuss Germany’s subsidies, I state, “As a result, solar power grew from 6 percent of generating capacity in 2000 to 16 percent in 2009.”  It should read, “As a result, renewable power grew from 6 percent of generating capacity in 2000 to 16 percent in 2009.  Solar power accounts for  less than 2 percent of the total.”