Research & Commentary: The Limitations of Solar Power

Published February 26, 2014

For more than a century, mankind has sought ways to convert the sun’s heat and light into electricity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, enough energy from the sun hits Earth every hour to power the planet for an entire year. In addition to harnessing this remarkable amount of energy, solar power has no emissions, no moving parts, and doesn’t make any noise. Such possibilities have led to significant federal and state subsidies and mandates in an attempt to turn lofty visions of a solar-powered future into reality.

Despite years of favorable public policy, including renewable power mandates and billions in subsidies, solar power still produces only about 0.2 percent of the nation’s electricity. The National Conference of State Legislatures says power from most large, utility-scaled solar installations still costs about 35 percent more than electricity from natural gas plants; many other experts estimate the levelized cost is even higher. Solar lobbyists defend the privileges by saying the technology is close to becoming competitive, but a 1983 study by Booz, Allen & Hamilton conducted for the Solar Energy Industries Association, Renewable Energy Institute, and American Wind Energy Association shows the same argument was made more than 30 years ago.

The report read, “The private sector can be expected to develop improved solar and wind technologies which will begin to become competitive and self-supporting on a national level by the end of the decade [meaning 1990] if assisted by tax credits and augmented by federally sponsored R&D.”

An ample amount of evidence demonstrates physical limitations, not lack of money, have prevented solar power from scaling up and becoming competitive in the marketplace. Solar power is diffuse, has low density, and is intermittent, which is why it stands little or no chance in competing with the abundant and reliable power produced by burning oil, coal, nuclear minerals, and natural gas, each of which has far greater density that allows it to consume far less land and charge prices we can afford.

These natural limits make it unlikely solar power will be anything more than a niche player for the foreseeable future. A Reason Foundation Policy Brief titled “Stimulating Green Electric Dreams: Lobbying, Cronyism and Section 1705” found such corrupt misallocation of taxpayer funds only undermines environmental improvement by diverting funds from sustainable endeavors to risky and wasteful ones.

U.S. energy history makes abundantly clear future technologies are impossible to predict, and therefore government should not impose public policies that distort energy markets in favor of one technology over others. Governments should roll back policies that mandate the use or subsidize any form of energy over another, especially those, like solar, that have so many limitations.

The following documents provide additional information about solar power.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help deal with ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography. 

Hard Facts: An Energy Primer
On page 30 of this publication from the Institute for Energy Research, Director of Regulatory and State Affairs Daniel Simmons extrapolates data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to offer a primer on coal production and use. 

Energy 101: Solar PV
This short video produced by the U.S. Department of Energy depicts how solar electricity is generated and how operators plan to improve efficiency and environmental friendliness. 

Testimony of James M. Taylor—Washington State Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee
Heartland Senior Fellow James M. Taylor testifies before the Washington Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunication committee during a January 2014 work session to discuss solar power. Taylor argues the costs of solar power greatly outweigh the benefits for a myriad of reasons.

IER Expert Testifies on Ohio’s Alternative Energy Standard
Testimony prepared by Institute for Energy Research economist Travis Fisher examines the natural physical limitations of wind and solar power, arguing they might not be the technologies of the future simply because of a lack of scalability rather than a lack of subsidies. 

How Wind and Solar Power Are Polluting the Commons
Private lawyer and accountant John Petersen states our electric grid is an essential commons no less important to an industrial society than our air or water. Regarding renewable power, he writes, “the electric current they generate is inherently unreliable and intermittent, which makes it fundamentally destabilizing to the grid. That introduction of massive intermittency into a system that requires absolute stability is, by definition, pollution.” 

Hot on the Horizon
A January 2014 article from the National Conference of State Legislatures discusses emerging state legislative trends including “affordable solar energy.” 

Stimulating Green Electric Dreams: Lobbying, Cronyism and Section 1705
This paper from the Reason Foundation delves into the fiscally unwise and ostensibly virtuous process by which the U.S. Department of Energy systematically made loan guarantees to several failed renewable energy companies, primarily solar. Further investigation by the Reason Foundation found the DOE allocated funds in proportion to each recipient’s lobbying expenditures, revealing merit was never considered before making poor “investment” decisions using taxpayer dollars.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.