Robert A. Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers and other classics of science fiction, predicted high-efficiency solar panels in a short story published in 1940, about 14 years before the first modern panels were invented by Bell Laboratories.

"Why, we could recover more than 20,000 horsepower in any city block," blurted Heinlein's fictional inventor upon the discovery. "Do you know what that means? Free power! Riches for everybody!"

Not quite.

This APS solar array near Cooper and Guadalupe roads provides enough electricity to power about 30 homes — for about six hours a day.
This APS solar array near Cooper and Guadalupe roads provides enough electricity to power about 30 homes — for about six hours a day.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter
Marcia Busching, former "Solar Team" candidate
Marcia Busching, former "Solar Team" candidate
Gary Pierce, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Gary Pierce, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show traditional fuel sources will reign for many years to come, with solar power trailing wind and biomass in the "renewables" energy.
Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show traditional fuel sources will reign for many years to come, with solar power trailing wind and biomass in the "renewables" energy.
Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show traditional fuel sources will reign for many years to come, with solar power trailing wind and biomass in the "renewables" energy.
Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show traditional fuel sources will reign for many years to come, with solar power trailing wind and biomass in the "renewables" energy.

As of the early 21st century, the real-life technology is far less exciting than Heinlein hoped.

Near a fire station at the corner of Cooper and Guadalupe roads in Gilbert, a 144-kilowatt solar-power generation yard surrounded by a chain-link fence transforms invisible energy particles streaming from the sun into electricity.

The installation, one of the oldest and smallest built by Arizona Public Service in the past 10 years, still is far larger and more elaborate than any home project. The facility has 10 rows of 48 panels, all mounted on burly steel supports sunk into concrete. Every few minutes, gears on the supports turn to angle the panels to better catch the sun's rays.

To get into the solar yard and give a reporter a quick tour, APS spokesman Steven Gotfried has to retrieve a padlock key from the firehouse. A couple of amiable firefighters grab the key and walk out with Gotfried, mentioning that they had wondered who owned the panels and how well they worked.

Gotfried explains that the APS panels, part of the utility's ongoing experiment with solar power, route electricity back into the grid, boosting the region's overall power supply.

"This has the capacity to power 30 homes," Gotfried says proudly.

"Oh," says one of the firefighters, visibly unimpressed.

In fact, the facility provides enough juice to power about 30 homes during daily peak-production times — the roughly six hours that the sun is near its zenith. Little power is produced when the sun is low in the sky or when clouds are overhead.

The obvious also must be stated: The plant produces zero watts at night.

Like all of APS' solar power production stations, this one doesn't store any of its produced electricity in batteries — so other sources must fill in the gaps in coverage.

There's another wrinkle in the estimate: Gotfried's per-home figure assumes each residence uses an average amount of energy. A 2,000-square-foot Valley home with two adults and two children and little concern for energy savings might easily consume much more; those 480 sun-tracking solar panels might provide daylight power for just 20 such high-usage homes.

Even on a larger scale, solar's limitations are clear.

State-of-the-art solar plants produce more electricity than this 2001 plant, and APS has built many more since then. One plant expected to come online in 2014 near Gila Bend will generate 32 megawatts. This will move APS toward its eventual goal of 200 megawatts in sun-generated electricity from solar plants it owns, which — at the 250-home-per-megawatt figure that APS uses — could power about 50,000 homes.

But, again, this will happen only during prime daylight hours and on relatively cloudless days.

Meeting the energy needs of a 2,000-square-mile metro area with 4.5 million inhabitants requires much more.

The Valley of the Sun, more than any other metropolis in the United States (perhaps even the world), ought to be awash in solar panels.

The reason it's not, and why it's not going to be anytime soon, is because of solar power's exorbitant price. For what you get, the cost has been much too high.

It's come down in a big way, but it's still too much — and will remain so for years to come.

Complex and funded massively by government handouts, solar power isn't all it's cracked up to be.

A visible sign of its shortcomings is the world headquarters of First Solar in Tempe. The solar-panel-making company inhabits a nice building by Town Lake. No solar panels can be seen on or near the building. At first, the company's spokesman tells New Times it's "silly" to ask why the building doesn't sport panels. Later, he apologizes for the jab and explains that the reason is that First Solar doesn't own the building.

The futuristic-looking building at 350 West Washington Street, owned by Lee Chesnut, California real-estate whiz and former minor-league music producer, uses high-efficiency solar shades to reduce power costs but not to generate power.

Too expensive, says Chesnut. He wants to put up panels one day, but he says he hasn't found a solution yet that pencils out because equipment on the roof makes for a tougher-than-normal installation job. Chesnut adds that he pays a premium to APS "in the range of $80,000 per year" over normal electricity fees to help fund the utility's renewable-energy projects.

He, like many others in the state, are enthusiastic and hopeful about solar power's future. Polls have shown that most residents don't mind paying a little more in their electric bills for "clean" energy. It wouldn't be exaggerating to say that solar panels represent an amazing technology. When unobscured by clouds, the sun lays down about 1,000 watts per square meter on a cloudless day at noon.

Normal solar panels, at peak production, turn about 20 percent of that energy into electricity. The efficiency is much less when the sun is at a lower angle in the sky, or if there are clouds. Dust on the panels can obscure some of the photovoltaic effect. Panels also lose some efficiency when they get hot.

Turning sunshine into money isn't easy. It's a cutthroat business, full of wrangling for government funds, lobbying, and playing off fears of global warming. There also are large production and installation costs to consider. Despite their almost magical trick of converting solar rays into electricity, even the newest solar panels are light-years from "free power."

Solar power has been popular in the past few years, with thousands of Valley residents signing up with private companies to have panels installed on their roofs. But that's because the stuff practically has been given away. Homeowners — combining rebates from utilities, the state, and a federal 30 percent discount for the installation company — have received up to 70 percent off the cost of a rooftop system.

Though rooftop and commercial-scale projects have remained popular as the subsidies have been pared down in the past couple of years, experts say it will be many more years before the industry can stand on its own.

An important part of that hoped-for independence of the solar industry is the concept of "grid parity," the point at which solar power costs the same or less as coal, natural gas, or nuclear. One local expert says another $200 billion or more in solar-panel research must be spent worldwide over the next 10-plus years for that to happen.

But even then, it's still middle-of-the-day power. An as-of-yet uninvented, relatively inexpensive super-battery would be required if solar power ever is to truly rival traditional power sources. As anyone who's owned a laptop computer or cell phone knows, batteries haven't advanced at the same rapid pace as other high-tech equipment. Batteries are expensive, heavy, full of toxic materials, don't hold enough charge, take too long to recharge, and drain quickly under heavy use.

Marcia Busching, an unsuccessful "Solar Team" candidate this year for the Arizona Corporation Commission, says when building a utility-scale solar plant begins to equal the cost of building a natural-gas-burning electricity-generating plant, power companies will need to decide which one to build.

But that's not quite true: Non-solar sources remain crucial to supplying power for most of a 24-hour day, and they're expected to keep doing so for decades.

It's hard to see how this situation could change anytime soon, despite the proclamations of believers like futurist and Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil, who predicts the world's energy needs will be met by solar power in about 15 years.

Forecasts by the U.S. government show a less sci-fi future in 2040, with fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other kinds of renewable energy, like bio-fuels, relegating solar power to little more than a pricey sideshow. As a Salt River Project resource-planning guide from last year states, "renewables can supplement but not replace conventional resources."

Even with all the gnashing of teeth over climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, one of the biggest stories of the past few years is rapidly advancing mining technology that allows underground mother lodes of natural gas and shale oil to be tapped. Though numerous environmental concerns have been raised about "fracking," the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that this newly recognized domestic jackpot in fossil fuels will allow the country to be energy-independent within a couple of decades. (A Matt Damon movie, Promised Land, examines the uproar over fracking; it's scheduled for release in Phoenix on January 4. New Times' sister paper in Denver published an article on the extraction method, "Controversy Over Fracking Continues," Westword, September 20.)

Despite the anti-fracking sentiment, these trillions of dollars' worth of natural resources aren't likely to stay in the ground.

Meanwhile, other energy technologies keep advancing. Research is ongoing in the quest for holy-grail energy sources like nuclear fusion and low-cost hydrogen fuel cells.

Taken together, the reliance on traditional energy sources and the potential for brand-new technologies threaten to eclipse solar power, which provides only weak, intermittent, expensive power in a stingy, tough, 24-hour-a-day world.

The basic concept for solar power began to be developed in the 1800s, was refined in the 1950s, and took off in the Space Age.

Solar panels are ideal for space vehicles or locations on Earth far from electrical hookups. In cities, solar has to be foisted upon people with sales gimmicks and mandates.

In 2006, partly because of concerns about domestic-energy independence and climate change, the Arizona Corporation Commission adopted the rules we now live by, forcing all utility companies (except for Salt River Project, a quasi-governmental agency with its own board of directors) to produce 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025. APS expects to hit its goal early, though most of the sources won't be solar.

For its part, SRP's leaders decided to reach a goal of 20 percent in "sustainable" sources by 2020. Only about 2 percent of these sources will be solar, though — the other 98 percent will come from sources such as wind, hydropower, and programs that encourage consumers to use less energy.

Solar power in Arizona never has been hotter. Dozens of solar companies have popped up, and thousands of systems have been installed in the Valley. The Phoenix metro area is considered one of biggest potential markets for solar because of its 300-plus days of sunshine each year. Driving all this action are the huge subsidies offered by the feds, the state, and local utilities.

And it's happening not just in Arizona. Concerns about global warming, finite oil and gas reserves, and future energy costs have elevated solar's presence worldwide. Germany, despite its northern latitude and cloudy days, swore off nuclear power and ramped up its solar-generation system — and government funding of solar power through lucrative subsidies — to historic proportions.

During one particularly cloud-free stretch of a few hours on May 25, about a third of all Germany's power came from solar panels. While exciting to solar boosters and climate-change worriers, the record-breaking day ironically helped bring attention to critics' claims that Germany has invested too much money in the past few years on an unreliable power source. Solar has grown so fast in Germany that, according to Christopher Booker of the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, "This makes it so difficult to keep the grid balanced that it is permanently at risk of power failures." Supporting that point is a study released this year by the Association of German Industrial Energy Companies that claims interruptions and failures in Germany's electrical grid are up by nearly a third in the past three years.

Problems integrating all the new solar power have compounded other concerns, like how a large supply of solar power has made it tougher for natural-gas plants to make money, spurring a heavier reliance on coal plants and creating more challenges for the future. By 2035, says the International Energy Agency, the cost to produce electricity in Germany is expected to be 50 percent higher than in the United States.

Worldwide interest in solar power over the past few years has resulted in an explosion of solar-panel makers, leading to a drastic drop in the price of the panels. (This article focuses on the world's main source of solar-electric-power generation, photovoltaic panels.)

These days, a typical 6,000-watt home rooftop system in the Valley costs about $24,000 to $30,000 before subtracting rebates and subsidies. That's almost half of the cost of installing a system in 1998 (well before the generous subsidies of late).

The cheaper installation costs, plus the large subsidies, have been good news for solar-seeking homeowners and businesses. So has the steep drop in solar panels themselves in the past two years. But the rapid price decreases have thrown the industry for a loop.

Innovation partially was to blame, as scientists figured out how to make better low-cost solar panels. But industry advocates accuse China of flooding the world market illegally with panels sold for less than their cost to manufacture. In November, the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed to keep tariffs on panels exported from China — but not before the unfair trade practices spurred bankruptcies of companies such as the high-profile Solyndra plant in California, costing the federal government hundreds of millions in unpaid loans.

In October, a report by GTM Research examined in Forbes magazine stated that more than half of the 300 major solar-panel makers in the world will go out of business or get bought up by other companies by 2015 because of a glut of panels on the market. A GTM analyst predicted plant closures in the United States, Canada, and Europe — leaving China as the world's "epicenter" of panel manufacturing.

It remains to be seen whether the current solar-power boom will last. The first one didn't.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, a surge in solar systems happened in Arizona and other states after the federal government began paying homeowners an amount equal to 40 percent off the price of installing rooftop solar hot-water heaters. Many disreputable contractors became involved in the program, says a 2007 analysis of solar power by Minnesota's Green Institute, resulting in potential "misuse" of federal tax credits. Still, the United States, for a time, became a world leader in those early solar hot-water heaters, which used high-tech panels to heat water directly rather than to produce electricity.

By 1983, more than 65,000 Arizona households had solar systems installed, usually on roofs, taking advantage of the federal tax credit and an additional 20 percent state credit. The handouts spurred a new solar economy, according to a 1984 analysis of the program by the now-defunct Arizona Solar Energy Commission: More than 300 solar firms opened in Arizona, employing about 2,500 people.

Between 1980 and 1982, solar tax credits had cost the state nearly $36 million. Consumers saved $60 million in utility costs, the 1984 analysis states, concluding that the program was worth the money.

But these energy-savings estimates were based on the assumption that the installed solar devices would work for 20 years. Joochul Kim, an associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning and one of the 1984 report's authors, says he believes most units failed after a few years and that "many homeowners did not bother to fix (the) units due to high repair costs."

The subsidies dried up by the mid-1980s — and so did the solar industry they spurred. A 1982 state consumer guide to Phoenix-area solar installers lists 70 companies. Only one, a heating and A/C firm that did solar on the side, still is in business.

Modern solar salesmen claim — some even guarantee — that their products will keep working in the Arizona heat for 20 or even 30 years. Roof shingles often don't last that long under the destructive Phoenix sun.

Neither do many companies.

Without the subsidies and government mandate, the solar boom now seen in Arizona would fizzle.

The incentives are intended to spur research and innovation that will make them unnecessary at some point. Meantime, the state is generating less solar power because of the way the handouts are distributed.

The 2006 state mandate requires that 25 percent of the renewable-energy programs run by utilities come from solar panels installed at Arizona homes and businesses.

Yet there's a common-sense fallacy to the system, if the goal is to produce more solar power overall: residential rooftop installations are less efficient, for the money invested, than large-scale commercial solar plants. The Solar Energy Industries Association reported earlier this year that average residential installations are priced at about $5 to $6 per watt, while utility-scale installations cost under $3 per watt.

In other words, about twice as much solar power could be generated for the same price if the money spent on home units went toward commercial-scale projects.

Not only are the homeowner subsidies enabling pricier energy, but the high, upfront costs of solar installation, even after subtracting the incentives, means people of lesser means often can't participate in the giveaway.

Arizona has received about $315 million from a federal program that provides a 30 percent discount off the installation of renewable-energy projects. About a third of that has gone to solar projects, while most of the rest has gone into windmills, which produce power 24 hours a day in windy areas. The 30 percent program is scheduled to be reduced to 10 percent by 2017, but industry lobbyists, including those with the national Solar Energy Industries Association, hope it will be extended.

Besides the federal incentive, the state and the utilities help make these solar deals even sweeter with direct and indirect subsidies.

Last year, for example, APS shelled out $53 million in residential "incentives" and $12 million in non-residential ones. To pay for these subsidies, APS hit its customers with a surcharge. In 2012, all residential customers paid a maximum surcharge of $3.84 in their monthly bills. (It's not a flat fee: Households that consume low energy pay slightly less.)

"The rooftop installers worked to get themselves included in the renewable-energy standard, and they have a nice carve-out," says Gary Pierce, chairman of the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission. "That's the most significant part that people pay in the surcharge on bills. The lion's share goes to rooftop."

This will change in coming years. The $12 million for non-residential solar installations will be paid each year for the next 10, while the direct, upfront incentives for home systems already are getting scaled back. APS went from paying solar buyers $3 per installed watt of solar power in 2009 (that's $18,000 for a 6,000-watt system) to the current 10 cents per watt.

All APS customers, though, will continue to pay the surcharge.

Whether the subsidies for solar panels benefit the public at large is debatable, but there's no question that some individual customers have benefited greatly.

John Beavers of Mesa says he paid about $7,200 after subtracting the subsidies for the rooftop panels installed atop his home in 2010, an amount he figures will be paid off by power-bill savings in about four years. Beavers is an electrical contractor and believes his know-how helped him get a better deal. Plus, he's an energy miser in his 2,900-square-foot house; he keeps the thermostat set at a tepid 81 degrees in summer. His hot-weather bills have dropped by 20 percent, he says, and "I pay nothing in the winter."

Experts recommend that homeowners interested in solar obtain at least three bids from solar companies because the prices vary so widely. Beavers says he obtained five.

Investing in solar should be considered like any other investment, says Hank Peck, a Tucson financial analyst. Occasionally, when clients mention they're looking at plunking down 10 or 15 grand on solar panels, he first directs them to examine "all other areas of financial planning."

He advises them to pay off any consumer debt, like credit cards or vehicle loans, before investing much money in solar panels, because otherwise anything saved from the panels in utility costs is offset by interest on the unpaid debts. If a household's financial affairs are in order (retirement plans in place, kids' college-savings funds begun) and the client plans to stay in their home for many years, Peck says, "I say great, go ahead."

Before they buy, solar customers need a roof that will last at least as long as the solar system on top — or else they'll spend thousands more taking it down, then putting it back up on a new roof. Customers also may want to consult a roofing company before embarking, because if the solar company mounts the system poorly, the roof could leak.

Leased systems, in which homeowners don't own the equipment on their roofs, also have become popular. California-based Solar City, one of the biggest installers in the country, with five outlets in Arizona, advertises a plan in which customers pay nothing down and receive benefits from their energy savings immediately. Such something-for-nothing plans rely on the hefty subsidies to work. This year, Consumer Reports advised people to be wary of solar marketing that sounds too good to be true, calling it one of the country's biggest modern scams.

Some firms have been suspected of cheating to stay ahead. Solar City is among three targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department in an ongoing investigation into whether installation costs are inflated to get more money from the government. The 30 percent federal discount is based on installation cost, so the higher it is, the more money the federal government pays.

Lyndon Rive, co-founder and CEO of Solar City, denies any costs have been inflated, adding that his company installs systems for $4.50 to $5.50 a watt, which meets government guidelines.

Solar advocates note that the popularity of rooftop systems has continued in the past year — even as Arizona incentives shrink. Last year, the APS incentive dropped from $1 per watt of installed solar power to 10 cents per watt, or about $600 for a six-kilowatt system. Yet the demand stayed strong, which meant more solar systems were being installed overall.

It appears that Arizona utilities could ditch their direct, upfront payments to customers installing solar panels, and the solar companies would survive just fine, as long as they and, in turn, their costumers still received the 30 percent federal subsidy.

It sounds good, but there's a catch: The hidden, indirect subsidies that the solar industry hopes also will remain in place to help keep solar attractive to people. Industry representatives fought against one change recently made by the state Corporation Commission. Until late this year, solar users didn't have to pay the renewable-energy surcharge most everyone else has to pay. Now they do.

Solar customers and businesses still don't pay sales tax on equipment. Utilities say they don't pay fees charged to all other utility customers — for maintaining and building the likes of transmission lines and transformers, for programs that help low-income utility customers, for environmental cleanup, and for storage of nuclear waste. When solar customers generate more power than they use during a year, they're reimbursed for that power at the full retail rate for electricity paid by customers.

The deficits have to be made up somewhere and result in higher electricity costs for everyone, according to APS. Seeing solar become more popular, the utility's leaders are growing concerned about these "cross-subsidies," and they told the Corporation Commission in a December 6 report that "APS believes that a sustainable [rooftop] solar policy must include an equitable distribution of costs and benefits across all customers."

Another way to put it: Solar customers should start paying their fair share for the infrastructure and for everything else that goes along with providing power.

Rooftop solar still is just a neat experiment for businesses. The vast majority of firms — those in Phoenix included — haven't regarded the technology as ready for prime time.

For now, companies tout their token projects to customers who care about such things, while using electricity from additional energy sources at most of their buildings.

Fresh & Easy, a grocery chain of 177 stores in California, Nevada and Arizona, owned by British retailing giant Tesco, is one of the corporations that uses environmentalism as a marketing tool, its website touting that it works hard to help the planet. Solar has been part of Fresh & Easy's strategy for the past few years. In 2008, the company installed one of the world's largest rooftop solar plants on its California distribution center. Last year, it announced that 10 of its stores had solar panels. The project cost more than $13 million after rebates, according to company spokesman Brendon Wonnacott, with the expectation that the investment will pay for itself in 10 years.

Asked when the company plans to put panels on the rest of its stores, Wonnacott stated, "Well, we'll wait and see. That would be a very, very large investment."

Tesco announced this month it may close its Fresh & Easy stores in the United States because they're not making enough money.

Arizona State University, taking advantage of the 30 percent federal subsidy, a 10 percent state subsidy, and utility incentives, now boasts more than 10 megawatts of peak-time solar power (enough to power 2,500 average Valley homes), mostly at its sprawling Tempe campus. Various private solar businesses invested about $90 million in the projects, and ASU agreed to pay the solar firms a fixed rate over 20 years for power generated by the systems. The university says it expects this arrangement will save money — as long as typical utility costs increase by 40 percent over the 20 years. APS says it can't predict whether that will be the case.

Rooftop solar projects have one major advantage over utility-scale solar projects — they're built on land that's already developed. Some see the Southwest's Sonoran and Mohave deserts as ripe for paneling-over. But one person's wasteland is another's treasured ecosystem. In some cases, environmentalists have been forced to choose between developing desert lands and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The Sierra Club, long a champion of desert preservation, gave its blessing last year to a solar-farm project on undeveloped federal land just west of 163rd Avenue and south of Pecos Road.

"We think it is critical that we transition to using renewable energy resources, with a major emphasis to reduce climate change," says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "That being said, we're not interested in seeing every inch of Arizona covered with solar modules. Every rooftop would be great."

As stated, this would take a very large investment. It would also take an unrealistic societal shift in which people choose solar no matter what the cost — plus a few new inventions, such as better batteries to store large amounts of solar-generated power.

Down-to-earth predictions show that solar will provide only marginal help in getting Arizona through the next two or three decades. Coal, natural gas plants, and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station will continue to provide the overwhelming majority of the state's electricity.

The limping economy means that a big, new power plant isn't needed for a while, because demand for power isn't growing. Arizona now generates about 25 percent more power than it needs, selling the excess to California and other states. Yet APS predicts that electricity consumption will double in Arizona by 2025, with an increase of about 50 percent in new customers.

When a major new source of power is needed, something experts predict will happen by 2037, it probably will be nuclear, says Corporation Commission chairman Pierce.

That makes sense, and not just because nuclear power's output can dwarf that of solar's. The conservative leadership in Arizona tends to be less enthusiastic about renewable-energy sources. Busching's "Solar Team," for example, pushed an expansion of the 15 percent mandate on renewables by 2025 — but that seems less likely to happen now, with an all-Republican corporation commission.

What the world needs is a new technology that generates plenty of power 24/7, at a low cost and without much or any pollution.

With no great alternatives on the horizon, the latest prediction by the U.S. Energy Information Administration is that renewable energy sources will grow from providing about 13 percent of the country's overall electricity needs to 16 percent by 2040. The EIA analysis shows that solar power will grow, but it will provide only about 1.8 percent of America's needs.

Naturally, Solar City's CEO, Lyndon Rive, is more optimistic. Extrapolating from the current rate of solar installations, he predicts that in 20 years, 20 percent of Phoenix-area homes and about 8 percent to 10 percent of the state will be largely solar-powered.

Which means nuclear and fossil-fuels will still rule.

Even in sunny Phoenix, solar power won't be anywhere near meeting most of the Valley's energy demands.

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Geeze - the problem with the initial solar solution was its efficiency. The firefighter was right to not be very impressed. However, it was a good starting point. Now there are solar solutions that capture ambient and radiant heat, converting it into usable electricity. Phoenix certainly has a lot of that, especially during the summer. According to this College Station roofer, the solar roofing solution that should be used is completely dependent on type of infrastructure it needs to power. In other words a rooftop solar system will not generate a lot of electricity for an wide area, but is more suited to an individual building. There are tons of other huge solar solutions that will do a much better job of providing electricity to Phoenix.


The comments following this article pretty much shows Solar is still a reach or the facility built in Mesa woud still be in operation.  It was out of business before it started.  The next utility investigation should be into how Arizona electric utilities are hiding derivative losses (their personal poker game) that they now want to pass-on to their customers because it was supposed to make energy cheaper by reducing the cost of their generation mix.  How did that work out?  Or hope for some legislation that will erase the accounts and forgive mark-to-market.


I read your article with interest, but you missed a way to use solar power to generate electricity without any pollution, Hydrogen.  A solar farm is built which uses its power to "crack" water into hydrogen and oxygen.  The oxygen is released and the hydrogen is stored on site.  Hydrogen is flammable, so it would need stored below ground (under the solar farm) and guarded.  This hydrogen would be burned by gas turbines on site to produce electricity and water, the water exhaust can be "cracked" again to restart the pollution free cycle.  The only input is free solar power.  The solar farm would be sized to produce and store enough hydrogen during "good" days to allow the plant to operate at night and in poor weather.  You now have free power running through the existing grid made with conventional technology and no pollution!  What a deal.


Well now that jsut makes a ll kinds of crazy sense dude.


I'm very disappointed that, having taken several days to compose a thoughtful and insightful reply to Mr. Stern's article, the software here refuses to accept it.  I have made sure that it is within the maximum word limit (I broke it down into two parts) and when I hit "Post comment" the spinning dots icon spins forever but never finishes.   The comment is never posted and there is no error message given.  I sent Mr. Stern a copy and asked him to assist but have received no reply from him.  Perhaps there is some imbedded code but if so I did not add it and do not know how to remove it.  I have tried changing to plaintext from rich text in the composition window but cannot get the comment or any significant fraction of it to post, despite having spent two days now in the attempt.


What a ridiculous hatched job. I hope no one actually believes this collection of fossil fuel industry talking points. You take even a half of the money this country's taxpayers spend subsidizing the fossil fuel -- including the money dumped into on never-ending warfare to secure access to fossil fuel (in the name of subduing "terrorists") -- and spend it on solar, and solar panels would be on every roof for free, contributing significantly to energy savings and use. What this author fails to take into account is the social costs of the use of fossil fuels, the 10s if not 100s of thousands who suffer or die from respiratory diseases each year because of air pollution, or the ongoing degradation of our lands and oceans from drilling and transporting oil. Industry, of course, profits by pushing such costs onto society and getting hacks like this author to ignore such costs.


... until one day a great hailstorm swept across the desert...


I invite the author and all you readers to attend a special event on January 24th at the AZ Science Center:

The Future of Energy: Brown, Clean, or In-Between

5 to 6pm: members of the AZ Energy Consortium will showcase their sustainable solutions at a Happy Hour reception

6 to 7:30pm: ASU President Michael Crow will introduce American Public Media's Sustainability Desk Reporter Eve Troeh (who moderates), Director of Carbon Nation, Peter Byck, SoS Professor, former Prez of Shell Oil John Hofmiester, and Stanford energy scientist Mark Jacobson.

7:30 to 8:15: Catered Reception



I have to disagree with the statement that there is only 1 company left from the '80s solar era. When I replaced my solar hot water system installed in 1984, I found a plumbing company that was around in 1986 doing solar. Yes, surviving was difficult but he made it.

The other reason that solar has been so expensive to install is the outrageous prices these companies have assigned to these systems. It is called "greed". They charge as much as possible so when the rebates disappear....again many of these solar companies disappear...never to be heard from again. 


It is a pity that the author did little to no research for parts of this article. The solar power plant in Gila Bend  does have storage capacity. It stores thermal energy using molten salts. It will still be able to operate at night and cloudy days. Oh, and it uses Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technology, which does not use photovoltaic cells. It uses parabolic mirror troughs instead. This technology has been around for a while, pity that the author did not bother looking it up. It is even described on the APS site:



"Even with all the gnashing of teeth over climate change..." - sounds like something a denier would say. Stern should tell us if he accepts the science of climate change or not. 


@marcia4arizona He has really bought the anti-solar propaganda.


Mr. Stern is either extremely ignorant or highly biased against solar
energy--perhaps both.  The comment about large scale solar farms being
less expensive than small rooftop installations conveniently ignored the
difficulty with permitting, the cost, and the significant power losses
associated with transmission which accompany utility scale solar
plants.  It almost sounded as if a utility representative wrote this
part of the article, since utilities do not favor a distributed
generation model that causes them to lose their control over power

The comments on fracking and natural gas
production were similarly misleading.  Looking only at current prices
for natural gas is a mistake--and solar energy is a perfect hedge
against future price increases of any fuel source.  Once a solar
installation is paid for the energy is truly free for the 20 to 25 year
lifetime of the project.  And ignoring for the moment the environmental
problems with extraction, the prices of natural gas, coal and other fuel
sources will most certainly increase in the future.  If we are truly
interested in finding power solutions for the future we must go where
the power is.  Our solar resource dwarfs all other power sources
combined.  The energy contained in all known petroleum reserves on earth
hits the earth every 15 hours in the form of solar energy.


Great article. The truth hurts - solar energy can't generate power at night and batteries are NOT a green solution. Until solar can exist without taxpayer subsidies more research is needed to optimize solar and make it more affordable. I actually like the de-centralized approach. Why waste energy delivering it over costly power lines?


My system covered all my power needs and provided enough extra power to set me up for operating an electric car about 10,000 miles a year. Mr. Stern doesn't have all of his facts straight and citing anonymous experts as sources is high school grade research, and amateurish at best.

Roof top solar makes sense for everyone who owns their home, and leasing a system makes one affordable for anyone with a decent credit score who pays an electric bill. I worked on a nuclear power plant and am a fan of generating energy by smashing atoms, however I would not want to see one near my children's school. Which is exactly where we are seeing quite a few solar panels being installed, over the playground at our children's schools.

His argument regarding grid parity is also lame as the cost of a new coal or natural gas fired plant does not take into account the increase to our health care costs caused by all of breathing the crap that flows from the smoke stacks. Nor does it take into account the socialized costs of extraction practices, including the subsidies provided to the extraction companies.


it seems that there are some mistakes made in this article as well. The fact that APS didn't store any energy. Most people don't use much power during the day (just stuff that runs all the time, IE freezers, fridges, climate control, etc.. ) while they are at work. By collecting solar power during the day it would be a great way to store this energy in batteries. Also it could be sold back to the electric company, something I have been led to believe APS doesn't do. In other states people do this and have zero electric bills AND they make lots of money. (of course you have to remember THAT they did have to pay for installation, and it's not according to APS one should do themselves, so they gouge you even more)

AZ should have a requirement that EVERY new home has solar panels on it built in as part of the cost. Furthermore if we were serious it would require every new lone applicant to put them on as well. Yes maybe I am a little hardcore, but I think it would help with our energy independence. BTW if we reduced the amounts of fuels burnt to create electricity we could reduce all kinds of negative things. No offense Ray but I think you need to understand basically how solar power works before you bash it so much. 


This article is embarrassingly bad for the New Times because it contains some critical mistakes based on flawed information, terrible analysis, and lazy reporting.

First, let's analyze the unsubsidized financial benefits of solar PV.  I have a 5.0 kW PV system which cost $25,000 in 2010.  I generated 9,438 kWh last year and sold it to SRP at a rate of $0.11/kWh (average annual rate on my Residential Basic Plan).  Based on those facts, I made $1,038 for an annual return of 4.15% without any subsidies.  There were few (if any) safe investments which made that rate of return last year.  Savings accounts were at 0.12% and long term government bonds were only in the 3% range.  My annual return on investment is highly likely to increase as the price of electricity increases over the 20 year life of the system.   Hank Peck, the Tucson financial analyst, should start recommending that all of his clients invest in solar PV based on that rate of return on investment alone.

But, wait, it gets better!

Second, let's analyze my actual, subsidized financial benefits of solar PV.  Starting with the 5.0 kW system, SRP paid me $2.70/W ($13,500 total) in 2010 for the lifetime rights to use the carbon dioxide reductions the system creates to offset the environmental impact of their other power generation activities.  That lowered my initial cost to $11,500.  I received a Federal tax credit of 30% ($3,450) on that amount which lower my expenditure to $8,050.  Then, I took a $1,000 State tax credit to lower my out-of-pocket cost for the entire system to $7,050.  When we analyze my actual annual return on investment, I'm making 14.72%  ($1,038 / $7,050).  There is not a safe investment (guaranteed for the next 20 years) which I know of that can even come close to that.  If you know of one, I'd love to hear about it.


Third, for those who like to analyze payback times, I get my initial investment back in 6.8 years.  After that, everything I generate is pure profit for the next 13.2 years.  There is no maintenance on the system and the components are warrantied.

Fourth, I pay for line maintenance and other SRP infrastructure costs just like everyone else does in my monthly service charge of $17.00 plus tax.  Solar PV system owners do not get a free ride on those costs as the author implies.  In fact, that is my only cost each month because I currently generate more electricity than I use but I still have to pay the monthly service charge. 

Fifth, my system generates its largest amounts of power in June, July and August when the demand  in Phoenix is at its highest.  I am actually doing SRP a huge favor selling them power at $0.1283/kWh during that time period because they may pay higher rates to produce or buy that power from other sources.  For those of you on EZ-3 time-of-use plans, you will pay $0.3499/kWh for peak power in July and August.  SRP buys it from me at $0.1283/kWh during that time frame.  This means that hypothetically they make $0.2216/kWh (the difference) on every kWh they buy from me and sell to you.  I would prefer to sell my kWh on an open market to capture that profit myself, but I understand that SRP provides me with a reliable service and that I do not have the leverage as a micro-producer to negotiate better terms for myself.  

Finally, no power production system operates 24/7/365.  The idea that solar electricity is inherently flawed because it can't generate power all of the time (i.e., at night) is an absurd assertion.  Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant has 3 generators.  At any given time, one of those three is off line for regularly schedule refueling and maintenance.  Using the author's irrational thinking, he would have to argue that the full nuclear power from that facility is not available 33% of the time.  That's not how electrical systems are designed and operated.  Palo Verde was designed with this down time in mind.  Solar PV systems need to be considered as part of the same electrical ecosystem that is designed and operated with the knowledge that certain power sources will not be available at certain times.  That's it the way these systems have always been designed.

If you have never considered solar PV before, I strongly recommend it.  You'll be making money and saving the planet at the same time.  It doesn't get any better that that.


It's only hard when you skew the reporting towards that conclusion.
For example, the title is deceiving.  Solar Power is THE MOST used
energy source on the Planet right now.  We grow all of our plants using
it.  Could you imagine the cost of growing all the plants on the Earth
if we were to generate the electricity to run electric lights?  Yet we
don't hear that cost savings in the calculations of the reporter.  How
about the light we use to operate our lives under - what's the
replacement cost for that using fossil fuels?  It's the way we think
about it - economics is a sad science because it only counts what we buy
and sell, not what we have or will have in the future.  But this
reporter doesn't even say that's what he's doing - skewing the
information to favor carbon based fuels and nuclear power.  But there is
as clear as the nose on your face.  Each individual has the
ability to build a solar cooker for less than $15.00 in material costs
which will substitute for all the energy needed to cook their food and
pasteurize their water:

The report doesn't talk about that because it doesn't fit into his image
he's trying to make you see - not the world as it is.  This reporter has
done this countless times when he feels that he doesn't like something -
he throws his own bias into it.   For less than $500.00 one can
build a simple solar water heater or solar trombe wall which will heat
your home and your water.  But he doesn't want to talk about that.

Nor does he want to talk about a solar trombe wall or in fact all the energy SAVED due to conservation legislation passed since 1970 or the massive savings of energy which could result in further building code improvements regarding energy efficiency and passive solar which could be implemented within the next 2 years!  He wants to slam one type of solar energy production so the other forms, passive and active are not pursued to their fullest extent.


Yeah not having batteries to store the power was a genius move. I know several homeowners in Tucson who sell their excess energy back to the power companies...this article is garbage. 


@sesmithwrites Photovoltaics on roofs are spreading steadily here in HI, but it is an expensive initial outlay (although rebates kick in)


@sesmithwrites we've considered but yes, it is a serious $ up front investment that majority of americans cannot afford. =(


This article is really hard on solar, but much of it is true. Sounds like Arizona didn't do their homework before setting up their solar projects. Yes, solar is not cheap. I've looked into going solar, and there is just no way for most of the energy needs of a family home. I put a 500w panel on my tool shed, and it provides lights for my shed and yard. Since there is no electricity run to the shed, solar was easy. BUT...can't run power tools and such. A solar plant that would run my home would run about $30k for a minimal system. But remember, your solar power requires batteries to be used at any time other than bright daylight. So I calculated what I would need to have enough power to go 1 week with cloudy days and little sun. O.M.F.G... Besides the cost of the batteries, I'll need a building larger than my home (1300 sq. ft.) to house the batteries and invertors and such. Well, maybe I'll go solar when I win the lottery. In the meantime, using DC power for lighting my shed is working great, and I'm going to do something similar for outside lighting for my home. But I simply cannot replace the power company. Yet.


This author's time would be better spent writing about what will happen to Phoenix and the rest of Arizona when the Colorado River dries up.   The source of your electricity will seem meaningless when you have no water.   You will get a preview in the summer of 2013.


This is an ignorant article written by someone who knows nothing about solar. Arizona needs to give government money to homeowners instead if building pointless solar farms that cost a fraction only so they can pocket the rest of he government money. Arizona is the problem, not solar power. 


I guess we were pretty naive, thinking our rooftop system would make much of a difference. It looks like our best chance of having any impact is making better choices to reduce our energy usage. Thanks for this in-depth look at the solar industry.


The real answer to this is a truly balanced power system. Solar for sunny days, wind for windy times, geothermal where it is accessible, same with tidal, and no matter what people want to hear-nuclear. Nuke power is not as "dirty" as people think. We have the paranoia of the Cold War and the 'scare movies' fromt he 40's sci-fi into the modern era to thank for that. Yes, there CAN be accidents, but there are also dam breaks. The point is that if we have a balanced grid, we can eliminate stuff like coal completely, and maybe even free up some of our rivers, using dams for drinking water purposes only.

If we balance it out with the previously mentioned items, that would reduce the need for nuke plants would also be reduced.


My home is 100% solar and wind powered. Why because it makes economic sense.  It would have cost me 1/2 million to connect to the grid.

Home installations with batteries do not make sense in the valley.  I ran the numbers and found that my kids savings account had a better return on investment.  

It would be possible if the Corporation Commission would force the power companies to purchase surplus power at a reasonable whole sale price rather than the artificially low prices which are currently in effect. They should eliminate the spurious fees which they apply to residential tie ins.

The main problem, like electric cars, is the storage system.  We currently do not have electrical storage systems which can power us through the night.  

ExpertShot topcommenter

@harlotsghostWhere is Stern on this investigation?  This is where the rubber meets the road Ray, come on!


@eichermc Actually, the best way to generate electricity from solar is by using the sun's heat; it's old and proven technology. Look into the solar experiments (and actual generating plants) built outside Barstow, California in the Mohave desert. That is what should be built; it's about as close to a baseline system from solar as you can get. With the proper working fluid in the heat exchange system, it will run through the night and on cloudy days. Other than that, it's more or less basic steam turbine electricity generation technology, something well known and understood for many decades now.


@918zzzthor Hi. The story doesn't say there was only one company from the 80s solar era. It says that out of a list of Valley solar companies published by the state in 1984, I could only find one that was still in business. That was J&R. Thanks. 


@desertbird This whole article seems like a half-hearted attempt to discredit solar power.  Note that there is no discussion about the free rides taxpayers have been giving to gas and oil companies who generate billions of dollars in profit yearly.  How long have those industries been around for again?


@curtshannon Nope -- neither ignorant nor biased against solar power. Just interested in getting the real story.

A utility rep didn't write this article, Curt. But I must say that your letter reads as if it was written by the former owner of a renewable energy consulting business. Are you same the Curt Shannon of Arizona who owned Conation Energy?

Large scale solar farms are, in fact, less expensive than similarly sized rooftop projects, so what's your point? I agree that looking only at current prices of natural gas could be a mistake, which is why my story didn't do that. The price of natural gas and NG power stations could go up or down in the future, obviously


@ddoyle525 All energy is subsidized. Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized, plus taxpayers spend billions if not trillions more on permanent warfare the main purpose of which is to secure access to more fossil fuels (war on "terrorists" - hah!). A principal difference is that the subsidies toward fossil fuel pays for more pollution, more destruction of public lands, more destruction of the oceans' viability. Very short-sighted. Solar, in contrast, is clean energy. That said, your position is not unique -- 19th century thinking is very popular these days among Americans.


@ptcgaz FYI -- The article states that APS doesn't "store" the electricity it generates from the PV plants it built, and you imply here that is not correct. It is correct. Ray


@D.P.Johnson Thank you - I am at a loss as to why Ray Stern keeps writing these obviously error ridden articles about renewable energy.  I'm guessing he's one of those anti-hippies that can't accept anything with a hint of patchouli about it.


@fairymagic13 I built a solar cooking using mostly trash; mainly cardboard, newspaper, and glass from a dumpster. About my "investment" was some duct tape and glue to hold it together. I used a reflector shade from my car to reflect extra sun into it. Managed to make beans, rice, and cornbread in it.


@jc.wallace Heh. This too. Solar power won't do any good if everyone is dead from thirst.


@Mikey1969 The amount of energy needed to mine, process and transport the fuel for nuclear power is enormous and is NEVER accounted for in the minds of the proponents of this type of energy.  That said, the amount of energy needed to STORE the spent fuel for over 10000 years, dwarfs that of the energy produced during a plant's 40 year life span.  Nuclear energy is an EVIL power source and should be discontinued immediately.


@bgray59 QUOTE:Home installations with batteries do not make sense in the valley.  I ran the numbers and found that my kids savings account had a better return on investment. /QUOTE

You either calculated it wrong or don't have the know how or know where to acquire the materials cheap enough, because its working over here great and will for then next 20 years before panels deteriorate and 40-50 before the batteries need replaced!  Off the grid and homeowner installed!


@raystern @curtshannon  I know I'm over a year late to the conversation, but I do feel like I need to give my 2 cents. I made it less than halfway through this article. This was not even close to real journalism, the jobs at the solar industry were evident from the first page. If I want biased information, I already know where to look

dennis20 topcommenter

@raystern @ptcgaz Why would APS store it? Do you really think APS is looking forward to solar energy?  Solar is here to stay and will continue to get better. The fact that SRP and APS isn't all exited about it should tell you something.  We are behind on this. Check what Germany has done. 


@fairymagic13 the reason is simple: those monopolies in power want to maintain the status quo and will hire people to generate propaganda that fits their needs, the carbon club is a trillion $ business, they will not give up without a fight. The Arizona corporation commission is now owned by the carbon club and they can hardly wait to derail solar in Arizona.This is just the start. Buy solar and buy an electric car, change the game.


@fairymagic13 Yep. I also think there's a lot of anxious masculinity underlying it. Fossil fuels and nuclear are manly while renewables are feminized and remind them of their nagging mothers. 


@Critical @bgray59 Please send me the brand of batteries which will last 40 to 50 years.  The best I have seen are an older style lead acid glass battery which lasted 20 years.  The problem is they are delicate and not good for use except in a carefully controlled environment.

The system I evaluated was a grid tied no battery system.  Interest rate on the money was 9%.  the output was from the savings of electric during daylight hours.  This data was taken from our electric usage which we had recorded over a three year period.  The fees charged by the utility, the special switching gear required by the utility but not included in the installation.  The switching gear had to be purchased from and installed by the Utility.  I amortized the whole thing using projected electric price increases.  Had the data analysed by an actuary I Know and he felt my estimates were overly optimistic. 


@ExpertShot @dwdickersonjr If I'm brain dead, thankfully I am blissfully unaware of it... At any rate, I do know of solar distillers. But I never saw one that could supply a town or city. If such exist, wonderful.

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