In the legitimate debate about how to best incentivize, value and price electricity from solar farms, I would have thought we had left the period of half-truths and busted myths behind.

Yet, a recent op-ed piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram (“Solar power is driving up electricity rates for no good reason,” May 21) shows that common sense and good economic policy requires that established facts be reiterated and tired old arguments are, once again, soundly refuted. 

First, Maine’s solar resource, while lower than the Southwest desert states (considered the “gold standard” for solar resources), is not nearly as low as the op-ed suggested. In fact, according to the National Renewable Energy laboratory, central Maine (where I live) gets 18.5% less sun than Orlando, Florida, and about 28% less than Tucson or Santa Fe. That’s a significant reduction, but not nearly the 50% claimed by the author.   

But the more ridiculous claim is that solar energy farms are heavily subsidized and so cannot compete in a fair marketplace with other generators. Where to begin?

Perhaps we should talk about the indirect costs borne by society for the centuries of fossil fuel combustion that have never been integrated into the actual price. The decades of greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere are really coming home to roost, causing the real and ever-increasing costs of climate-related catastrophes and long-term weather pattern changes.

If we factor in the “social cost” of carbon, calculated to be anywhere from $50 to $250 per metric ton, I suspect coal and natural gas plants would never even be built, let alone continue to run. And that doesn’t account for the particulate emissions, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants for which fossil fuel plants have historically been responsible. 


But the real problem with this argument is that it leads an unwary reader to believe that solar is the only energy technology that is subsidized. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

A 2011 report commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute examined the cumulative federal incentives for the 60-year period from 1950-2010.  Adjusted for inflation, the report estimates that the federal government spent over $837 billion dollars in that 60-year period (adjusted for inflation). Of that, the fossil fuel industry enjoyed 70% of that amount.

Let me repeat and rephrase that. Oil, natural gas and coal interests received over $585 billion in various federal subsidies. During that same period, solar and wind (combined) accounted for only $74 billion (9% of the total). To be fair, a lot of federal dollars have shifted toward renewables in the last decade, but there’s a long way to go before we can argue about a “fair market” in the energy world. The scales continue to be heavily weighted toward the incumbent fossil fuel industry. 

The debate over the best way to manage the energy transition required to ensure a sound future for our grand children is an important one, and I heartily endorse a vigorous exploration of the issues. But – to paraphrase the legendary Daniel Moynihan – we’re all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. 

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