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Muska: Can solar energy power the sunny southwest? Maybe not

D. Dowd Muska
Southwest Public Policy Institute
The sun sets behind photovoltaic solar panels at Benban Solar Park, one of the world's largest solar power plant in the world, on Oct. 19, 2022, in Aswan, Egypt.
Amr Nabil/AP

In the ’70s, it all seemed so simple.

President Carter issued a proclamation declaring the sun “an inexhaustible source of clean energy.” A joint resolution of Congress predicted that “the development of solar technologies will provide an abundant, economical, safe, and environmentally compatible energy supply.” Robert Redford assured Americans that “the sun will always work” and “never increase its price on a heating bill.”

But nearly 50 years later, solar’s failure is blindingly clear. The Southwest Public Policy Institute recently explored the contribution sunshine makes to utility-scale electricity generation in the eight states we study: Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. What we found was jarring.



In the Southwest, solar generates a mere 6.4 percent of utility-scale power. That’s despite the region enjoying the sunniest skies in America.

This tremendous disappointment is all the more perplexing when one considers the massive level of government succor that has flowed the solar industry’s way since the era of Annie Hall, the Bee Gees, and the Star Wars Holiday Special.




In 2012, an audit by the Government Accountability Office found that federal agencies oversaw hundreds of “initiatives that support solar energy across the four key federal roles” of R&D, “fleets and facilities,” “commercialization and deployment,” and “regulation, permitting, and compliance.” For decades, wildly generous tax credits have been offered at the federal and state levels. And in the late 1990s, lawmakers began to adopt renewable portfolio standards, which require power suppliers to generate or purchase “green” electricity.

Enjoying both free fuel and government-conferred advantages, the solar industry should dominate the Southwest. Yet it doesn’t.

The problem is, essentially, fundamental. As the Institute for Energy Research noted, sunlight is “relatively weak because it must first pass through the atmosphere, which protects the Earth from the sun’s intensity.” A 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the solar radiation that reaches us as suffering from “low energy density.”  

And that’s when it is around. Intermittency, in journalist Robert Bryce’s opinion, is a “killer drawback” for solar: “Lower power output on cloudy days and during the winter — and zero output at night — means that solar power facilities must be paired with expensive batteries or conventional power plants in order to prevent blackouts or brownouts.”

Then there are the NIMBYs. Utility-scale solar, in community after community, faces resistance from locals. Last month, the Roswell Daily Record reported that a New Mexico regulatory agency “voted against three proposed [solar] projects after hearing objections from county residents.” Issues raised included fencing that “will deter from scenic views and hurt property values” and “concerns that the panels contain hazardous substances.” According to The Durango Herald, residents near Hesperus have banded together to fight a photovoltaic project, worried about “water runoff” and “direct loss of 1,900 acres of elk habitat.”

Solar is inefficient, unreliable, and — when all costs are considered — expensive. Even many “greens” oppose it, when a facility is sited in their neighborhoods.

Solar is a bust, even in the sun-drenched Southwest. If it can’t make it here, it can’t make it anywhere.

D. Dowd Muska is a senior fellow at the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a research institute dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting and defending sound public policy solutions.