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The PJ Tatler

by
Belladonna Rogers

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March 30, 2012 - 5:16 am

What does irony look like? It’s a concept, so normally it doesn’t look like anything. But when the President of the United States flies 1,530 miles on Air Force One to Las Vegas to give a speech on energy conservation — irony looks a lot like this:

At the Copper Mountain solar energy plant in Boulder City, Nevada, our characteristically condescending Chief Executive said this, according to the transcript issued by the White House Press Office, which helpfully adds “(Laughter)” so that those of us unable to fly to Nevada on Air Force One —  although we were privileged to pay for his trip — can appreciate what it must have been like to bask in his withering wit and scintillating sarcasm (emphasis added):

Now, you’d think given this extraordinary site, given the fact that this is creating jobs, generating power, helping to keep our environment clean, making us more competitive globally, you’d think that everybody would be supportive of solar power. That’s what you’d think. And yet, if some politicians had their way, there won’t be any more public investment in solar energy. There won’t be as many new jobs and new businesses.

Some of these folks want to dismiss the promise of solar power and wind power and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, they make jokes about it. One member of Congress who shall remain unnamed called these jobs “phony” – called them phony jobs. I mean, think about that mindset, that attitude that says because something is new, it must not be real. If these guys were around when Columbus set sail, they’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society. (Laughter.) We were just talking about this – that a lack of imagination, a belief that you can’t do something in a new way – that’s not how we operate here in America. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.

This from a man whose own vehicle is not exactly a model of what he touts for us.

At Reason, Ronald Bailey takes a closer look at what the president is promoting, and what its real cost would be:

Yes, America has always been about subsidized electricity. In any case, let’s add up once again what federal subsidies (in this case a 30 percent tax break) can conjure into existence and compare costs with a new natural gas-fired electric plant. As the president noted, the new 58-megawatt Copper Mountain facility can generate enough power to supply 17,000 homes. How does he come by that number? Very roughly, one megawatt of installed capacity when operating can supply electricity for 1,000 homes. Since solar is intermittent, the usual estimate is that solar plants operate at 30 percent of maximum capacity. In this case, Copper Mountain would supply enough electricity for 17,000 homes.

We should, of course, be suspicious.

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When it comes to the president’s calculations, Bailey cautions:

The Electric Power Research Institute latest estimate for building a new 550 megawatt natural gas-fired electric plant operating at 80 percent capacity is $1.2 billion. Using the same form of calculation implied by the president (1 megawatt per 1,000 homes x 80 percent of 550 megawatts) suggests that such a plant could supply electricity to 440,000 homes.

Now let’s scale up the Copper Mountain plant ten-fold for a rough comparison to a 580 megawatt plant. The current plant cost $140 million to build, so a ten-fold increase would (again roughly) be $1.4 billion. Not so much more than a natural gas plant; but then there’s the 30 percent capacity factor to take into account. So to get the same amount of electricity generated means that a comparable solar plant would actually have to have maximum capacity of more than 1,800 megawatts. So at $141 million per 58 megwatts of capacity such a plant would cost roughly $4.4 billion to build. That’s almost four times more expensive than a comparable natural gas plant would be.

But surely, the extra expense for solar will be made up in fuel cost savings, right? Recent calculations of the levelized costs of various forms of electric power generation technologies (including lifetime fuel costs) suggest not.

Taking a puckish approach to presidential squanderlust, At the Rubicon throws down the gauntlet:

Ok, Mr. President.  Let’s play a little game: You First.  Declare a moratorium on the direct and indirect use of petroleum at the White House.

No more jetting around in Air Force One.

No more using the Marine One helicopter.

I guess that mothballs your big fancy bullet-proof limo and bus.

The White House is probably heated via heating oil so that has to stop.

All of the White House electrical power will have to come from non fossil-fuel sources.

And that’s why irony looks like this:

 Photo credit: Leila Navidi of The Las Vagas Sun

Belladonna Rogers is a close observer of international and domestic affairs.
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