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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Solar Versus Coal: Coal Is a Big Loser

You've probably seen the cost comparisons which still posit the cost of solar as greater than the cost of coal. They are wrong. And, any utility contemplating building a new coal-fired generator will be making a big mistake today.

First of all, just comparing the costs of the plants themselves makes it look like coal is cheaper. But, it's not. That's because the social costs of building a coal plant are borne by the government and by the people. It's like the Bankster Bailout: the investors in the bank insisted that the taxpayer bear their losses and they didn't even get a haircut, while the public saw the loss of millions of jobs. Just building a coal plant has a huge hidden cost which is borne by the public. One cost is the CO₂ that's produced by the plant during its lifetime raises temperatures, which has many adverse effects such as reducing food crops, destabilizing the weather and increasing allergies. Emissions cause increased lung cancer and asthma, especially in children exposed to polluted air.

Until recently, there has not been much public understanding of just how coal plants were hurting us as a people. And, utilities got off scot-free in terms of paying for these damages their coal plants were forcing on the public. But, with increased awareness, politicians are beginning to come under increasing pressure to make the utilities themselves pay. And, the possibility remains that enlightened government will go beyond forcing utilities to pay and will make it illegal to build new coal plants.

Consequently, if we add in all these costs, the coal plant becomes a far less attractive alternative. Then, if we look at operational costs, we find that coal plants have three times the operating cost of a solar plant (3¢ versus 1¢ per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced). Once a solar plant is constructed, there's very low costs to maintain it.

If we add up all of the costs of coal versus solar, solar wins hands-down—today!

If your utility is bringing a coal-fired plant online today, it will never recover the costs of building that plant. Solar will obsolete it very quickly.