AUSTIN, TEXAS – On KXAN TV’s noon news broadcast, an attractive female reporter performed an attractive on-camera standup, heralding the start up of the new Webberville solar farm. The PR team at Austin Energy couldn’t of done it any better. It was straight out of their well crafted press release.
In fact, many media organizations are gaga over the new 380 acre solar farm. The 127,000 photovoltaic solar modules make it one of the largest solar projects in the country. Clean, renewable energy for all is the promise. Austin is leading the way.
Utopian city officials like Mayor Lee Leffingwell were more than eager to poise the project as an example of sterling leadership.
“The Webberville Solar Project exemplifies Austin’s leadership and investment in a clean energy future,” said Leffingwell.
But wait. Austin, we have a problem. The project will cost Austin $250 million. The current lifespan of photovoltaic solar panels is 15-20 years at best.
And the truth is there is no savings here for the city or consumers. In fact, utility bills for Austinites will rise because of this project. The total cost of the project will saddle the city with $10 million annual payments for the next 25 years and Austin Energy is tacking on an extra 60 cents a month to everyone’s bill to pay for it. And keep in mind, this is on top of Austin Energy’s planned rate increase that will add an additional $16 to the average power bill. Ouch!
And to top it off, many of Austin’s middle and low income residents are already struggling to keep the lights on with Austin Energy’s current rates. It seems like the city’s emphasis should be on finding ways to lower energy costs, instead of diving headfirst into tremendously expensive and unproven technologies like solar.
But at least it’ll provide green and clean power right? It’s coming from the sun after all?
What Austin Energy and the Mayor Leffingwell won’t tell the public or simply don’t know is that producing solar panels is a very dirty and environmentally unfriendly business. It’s an extremely energy-intensive process and it’s far from a zero emission technology.
Photovoltaic solar panels are constructed in much the same way silicon computer chips are made. Raw materials like quartz sand have to be mined for silicon cells and metal ore for thin film cells. Then these materials have to be treated with hazardous chemicals for the purification, crystallization and wafering processes.
Then they have to be manufactured into solar cells and assembled into modules. All these processes produce air pollution and heavy metal emissions, and they consume enormous amounts of energy, which brings about more air pollution, heavy metal emissions and also greenhouse gases.
Won’t it produce jobs at least?
In five years, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that the cost of solar PV energy will be about $211 per megawatt-hour, compared to $63 for power plants fueled by natural gas. That means it is over three times as expensive.
Most of us would agree that cutting pollution emissions and reducing our dependence on imported oil are laudable goals. But the single-minded focus by Austin Energy on solar and wind power may prove to be a very costly mistake for Austin residents.
If Austin is going to continue to grow and produce jobs for its citizens, it’s going to need to be able to provide reliable and cheap energy. High energy costs will undoubtedly kill the golden goose.
Perhaps less tax dollars and subsidies should be risked on unproven and expensive so-called “green” technologies are more emphasis placed on energy efficiency. That’s where real energy savings can be realized.
And it wouldn’t cost anyone a dime.