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A Power Company's Day in the Sun

Posted by: Michael Arndt on April 22, 2009

Has the nation’s biggest nuclear utility seen the light? Exelon announced on Apr. 22 (what a coincidence—that’s Earth Day) that it will construct the biggest urban solar-power project in the U.S., a 39-acre array of sun panels that will cost $60 million to construct on Chicago’s South Side.

The facility could be producing electricity by year-end, assuming the Chicago-based power company gets loan guarantees from the federal government under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan. If so, the 10-megawatt site would almost triple Exelon’s solar-power output: The company generates just 6 megawatts from the sun today.

I don’t want to be an Earth Day party pooper. But this does not look like the future.

Chicago, for one, is not an ideal place for solar power. On average, skies are overcast half the year, ranking Chicago as one of the nation's cloudiest cities. "We're not 360 days of desert sunshine a year," acknowledges Tom O'Neill, Exelon's senior vice-president of generation development. (Of course, power plants of any type need to be close to customers, so Exelon's geographic options are limited.)

The bigger issue is economics. While photovoltaic generators cost almost nothing to operate and maintain, they are expensive to construct. O'Neill tells me that the all-in costs of nuclear power are about $3,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt. Natural gas and wind power are cheaper still. Solar, by contrast, runs about $6,000 per kilowatt.

Without federal loan guarantees, which will back 80% of Exelon's investment, O'Neill says the project won't be built. "It's as simple as that," he tells me. That's not all Exelon needs from the government. The company can claim a 30% tax credit on its investment under the stimulus bill. No tax break, no project. The tax credits expire at the end of 2009.

Add it all up, and Exelon says it will earn back its outlays in 2021. Not too many investors will wait 12 years for a return.

Exelon does deserve a pat on the back IMHO. The solar facility would put a vacant industrial tract to use again. It would produce no emissions that contribute to global warming. It might help lower the pricetag of photovoltaic panels, by giving supplier SunPower of San Jose greater economies of scale. And at least Exelon is risking some money on alternative energy.

But, to mix metaphors, this project is a drop in the bucket. In 2010, if the facility goes online, Exelon will be generating 16 megawatts of electricity from the sun. It will be generating 16,000 megawatts from atomic power.

Happy Earth Day.

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Reader Comments

Holly Garfield

April 27, 2009 11:36 AM

Exelon is building a solar power plant on an empty lot in a major city. If Exelon can make this plant profitable in only 12 years with the current costs of solar development then this is a great sign for solar. It's time to start developing non-ideal locations that are close to the customer. The project cost is a drop in the bucket for energy development, and also one key step on the journey to clean, renewable energy independence. This is not a plant to pay back investors in a few years, it is a plant to show the viability of solar plants in locations other than the desert. The cost is low, and success can generate large scale solar development that is economically viable. This is a proof of concept plant, not one meant to be competitive by itself. And Chicago, as the author points out, is close to a worst case scenario for solar power near a major city. If it can work here at all it can work in almost any major city. Current organic solar power is about half the price of silicon, but still in development for both efficiency and durability. Konarka Technologies in Massachusettes is currently making organic solar cells on clear plastic sheets for under $1.00/watt. Silicon is running about $2.20/watt. Konarka expects mass production can bring their costs to under 10 CENTS a watt in the future. This is according to Discovery Channel documentaries.


April 28, 2009 03:37 AM

How much money has Gates, Buffett , Soros ,Bloomburg etc. personally invested in solar or wind? If it is such a good deal why haven't these prescient businessmen sold everything and invested in these idea?

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