San Francisco Solar Initiative Too Costly

Published February 1, 2006

A $100 million solar power initiative approved by San Francisco voters in 2001 has yet to produce any solar power, San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission reports.

Prior to the 2001 solar power ballot initiative, solar power advocates promised the costs of solar panel technology were poised to drop dramatically. Relying on that promise, San Francisco voters approved a $100 million bond initiative to pay for solar equipment on city-owned buildings.

The initiative, however, held solar advocates to their promise that solar technology costs would soon fall dramatically. It mandated the $100 million could be spent only when solar power could be generated for the same or less money than electricity from the regional power grid.

Costs Remain High

Despite assertions from advocates that solar power is cost effective, and despite promises that solar power costs would soon drop, the city has yet to devise a plausible scenario where solar power can be generated for the same cost as traditional electricity. The $100 million in bond funds cannot be spent.

“We’ve got a $100 million bond sitting there,” Mayor Gavin Newsom (D), a strong solar power advocate, lamented to the San Francisco Chronicle for a November 16, 2005 story.

The city’s inability to launch its solar power initiative has not stalled for a lack of creative arithmetic, however. “We are working every single day … trying to be creative to figure out how the heck we can use those dollars,” Newsom told the Chronicle.

Existing Projects Costly

The city’s newest solar power installation, purchased with other city revenues, illustrates the difficulties in finding an economic justification for new solar power generation. The new installation cost $1 million to build, will cost additional money to operate and keep in good repair, and will provide barely enough power for the equivalent of 200 homes.

A similar solar installation, involving 60,000 square feet of solar panels at the Moscone Convention Center, cost $7.4 million to build, will cost additional money to operate and keep in good repair, and provides the equivalent of the power needs of only 675 homes.

Newsom said the city will either forfeit the bond money or ask voters to pass an initiative that does not require the city to justify solar power generation economically. “If we can’t use [the $100 million bond funds], we go back to the voters,” Newsom promised the Chronicle.

“It is quite telling that even with significant subsidies and creative mathematics, San Francisco officials could not economically justify solar power to voters,” said Tom Tanton, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research. “The simple fact is that despite all the solar power industry propaganda, solar power is tremendously expensive and will remain tremendously expensive for the foreseeable future.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.