Are solar panels really a sustainable energy source when their operation requires not just sunshine, but a constant infusion of that other green, money?

The Skagit Valley Herald's story ("Investing in solar," May 19) discusses a coming reduction in tax subsidies for solar power. But direct tax incentives are only the tip of the iceberg.

Puget Sound Energy is required to buy surplus power from privately owned solar systems at a cost well above market price. Since PSE is a regulated utility and therefore guaranteed a certain profit, when its costs increase, customers (that is, all of us) pay higher prices.

A subsidy of another kind is required because solar is an intermittent energy source. When the sun doesn't shine (not unusual around here), the power grid must have standby capacity to make up the difference. The more solar power we have, the more PSE must invest in back-up systems to compensate for the unpredictable solar supply.

This is true both for large-scale solar plants mandated by Olympia and those bought privately with a range of purchase and operation subsidies.

The article quoted a number of people who've installed solar and look forward to reduced costs. Those savings are possible only because of money taken out of our pockets. Whether solar makes sense from an environmental perspective is a discussion worth having. But there's little doubt that, in most applications, solar simply isn't doable without subsidies.

If you doubt this, search Google for "best states for solar power." Instead of a list of places with lots of sunshine, you'll find various rankings by level of subsidy. That's the only way sunny Massachusetts makes the top of many lists.

So the next time you see solar panels on a roof, give yourself a pat on the back. You helped pay for that.

Mark Lijek


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