Solar Eclipsed: Why the Sun Won't Power Phoenix Despite an Industry Boom

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.

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern