The conservative website Daily Caller argued that President Obama's executive action to bring solar energy to low-income communities would be costly, but to prove its point, it cited a solar energy project that will bring millions in economic benefits.
On July 7, the Obama administration announced an initiative that will make it easier for all Americans -- but those in low- and moderate-income communities in particular -- to access solar energy. In response, the Daily Caller's Michael Bastasch criticized one of the initiative's key components: a program to encourage the development of community solar programs, known as “solar gardens” -- large, centrally-located solar arrays from which community members can purchase solar energy in exchange for credits on their electric bills.
Bastasch warned that solar gardens “could increase costs and bring dubious benefits.” To make his point, he cited Denver's plan to power 16 city-owned buildings with solar energy from community solar gardens. But far from being costly, the project is expected to save the city $6 million over the next 20 years.
He actually noted the $6 million projected savings, but immediately dismissed it, saying that Denver is “paying more than what other [cities] pay for power from traditional sources.” He wrote that the city has a contract to buy solar power for 12 cents per kilowatt hour during the first year, which is more than the 9.69 cents that commercial customers in Colorado pay on average.
But Bastasch completely ignored the credits that the city of Denver will receive in return. Under the solar garden arrangement, residential or commercial customers first pay for a certain amount of solar power and then receive credits on their utility bills based on the amount of solar power generated by their purchased portion of the garden. Karen Gados, communications director at SunShare, told Media Matters that the city will receive 33 cents in credit toward their building's utility bills for every kilowatt hour they purchase in the first year, or a savings of 21 cents per kilowatt hour. “Thus the huge savings at the end of 20 years,” said Gados.
Bastasch didn't stop with that significant omission. He also tried to cast doubt on the project's benefits by claiming, “There's no guarantee solar power will actually come to your home or building.”
But that's not really the point. Solar garden customers purchase solar energy capacity -- the electricity produced from the solar garden -- which is then added to the electric grid. Regardless of where the solar energy ends up, it will both reduce the grid's carbon emissions and reduce the customer's utility bill with a credit.
Community solar projects can also provide solar energy access to those who don't have the capability to build solar panels on their own properties, often bringing savings on electricity bills at the same time. For similar solar gardens in Denver, invested residential customers currently break even, and commercial customers can save up 10 to 15 percent from their bill, according to SunShare President David Amster-Olszewski. Over time, the cost savings will likely increase because solar power is purchased at a fixed price, while fossil fuel prices are expected to rise.
Bastasch concluded by writing that adopting solar gardens means that Denver “will pay more to pretend its buildings are being powered by solar energy.” But the only pretending going on is by the Daily Caller's Bastasch, whose article pretends that the financial benefits of solar gardens don't exist.
UPDATE (7/8/15): The Daily Caller added an update to the end of its article, writing: “the credit Denver will receive in it's first year will be about 33 cents per kilowatt hour due to demand charges charged by the utility. The credit given to the city by the utility Xcel Energy is how Denver can claim $6 million in savings over 20 years.” However, the article itself still claims that solar gardens “could increase costs and bring dubious benefits.”
Photo at top via Flickr user BlackRockSolar with a Creative Commons license.