In 1982 as a graduate research student at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I worked on solar energy projects. At the time, the goal was to replace fossil fuels with solar energy in the production of electricity. As an infant industry, it was argued that all solar needed was short-term taxpayer subsidies to become competitive with its elder rivals. However after 34 years and massive taxpayer subsidies, the industry still cannot compete cost-wise with rival energy sources in pro-ducing electricity.
The latest DOE data show that in 2013 taxpayers showered solar energy with $4.4 billion in subsi-dies for a mere 19 million megawatt hours (MWH) of electricity production, or one-half of one percent of total electricity usage for the year. That works out to $23 per MWH when the average retail price for electricity was only $13 per MWH. In addition to these subsidies, the federal government invested in scores of failed solar energy firms including $535 million in Solendra, $1.5 billion in Sun Edison, and even $2.7 billion in Spanish solar energy giant, Agengoa.
Despite the subsidies and excessive costs per MWH, advocates argue that solar energy remains an infant industry that needs taxpayer funds and regulatory coddling. If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from coal-fired electricity generation, a better approach is to introduce a carbon tax taking the decision making out of the hands of market meddling politicians, and putting it into the hands of individuals and investors with “skin in the game.”