Dan Hofman, RegenEn Solar

By Dan Hofmann, guest blogger

I had such a great response to my recent Insider Louisville commentary that I thought it would be worth the time to take an in depth look at the implications of such a massive undertaking.

Now that we know it’s physically possible for solar photovoltaics to supply all of the electricity needs in Kentucky by covering with solar panels only one-fifth of the land already cleared by mountaintop removal, I think it’s important to ask the following:

  • How quickly could we make the transition from coal to solar?
  • How much would it cost in the short and long term?
  • How would this transition affect coal mining jobs and how many jobs would it create?
  • Can our economy, and our environment for that matter, afford to stick with coal for the long term?

I think the only way to make a transition of this scale possible would be to spread it over many decades. In my previous assessment, I estimated that it would take a 69.1 gigawatt/hour solar array to provide all of the electricity needs in Kentucky today.

But if this project is spread out over many years the size of the solar array would need to grow to match the expected increase in electric kilowatt hour consumption over time.

Figure 1 shows what I believe would be a feasible transition from coal-fired electricity to solar photo-voltaic over the next 50 years.

Click to enlarge.

If we start by adding roughly 1 gigawatt of solar each year, then increase that amount by 7 percent per year for 40 years, we could achieve a net-zero carbon economy by the year 2050; powered entirely by solar photo-voltaic.

It also shows the expected increase in electricity consumption from a total of about 90 terawatt-hours today to about 240 terawatt-hours in the year 2060.

This increased consumption is based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s data that shows an average annual increase of around 2 percent in electricity consumption in Kentucky from 1980 to 2005.

Figure 2 hows the solar photo-voltaic capacity that would need to be installed per year and the cumulative in direct current megawatts. There would be a drop off in year 2050 as we achieved net-zero.

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But, new panels would still need to be manufactured and installed as the industry standard 25-year warranty would expire on earlier solar panels, thereby providing long-term jobs.

However, manufacturers claim that solar PV panels can function well past their expiration date, producing electricity for 40 or even 50 years.

Figure 3 shows the jobs that would be created over the next 50 years.

This projection is based on a University of California report that claimed that in the solar industry “20 manufacturing and 13 installation/maintenance jobs [are created] per installed megawatt.”

As you can see, the 20,000 coal-mining jobs (represented in red in the graph) in Kentucky would pale in comparison to the potential of solar photo-voltaic.

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In fact, more than 30,000 jobs could be created in year one with the installation of 1 gigawatt of solar, already matching coal-mining employment.

These would not be temporary jobs either.

The maintenance jobs would be needed indefinitely and the manufacturing and installations jobs would be needed as some solar panels are retired and replaced by new panels.

Figure 7 shows the decrease in the consumer price per kilowatt-hour for solar energy over time.

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This cost includes the cost to install solar, install energy storage (beginning in 2020), maintain the solar array, and building the transmission infrastructure.

While this decrease may not look like much at first glance, it’s much more desirable than the dramatic cost increases in Figure 8 if we were to stick with coal.

Figure 9 shows how costly it could be for Kentucky to ignore to potential of solar energy.

While the annual cost of electricity during the transition from coal to solar could be similar to the cost of coal electricity by itself through the year 2030, the exponential increase in coal electricity could drain nearly $150 billion more per year than solar energy by 2060 with a cumulative cost of $1.78 trillion over 50 years.

Click to enlarge.

Kentucky has always used the cheap cost of coal electricity to lure business to the commonwealth.

The same strategy could be used for solar electricity if we get a head start on competing states.

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