The cheapest natural gas price for a decade is a boon for American homeowners. At less than $2 per million British thermal units, though, it looks toxic for its already troubled rival, the solar energy sector. But gas isn’t close to chocking the life out of it just yet.
There’s certainly enough bad news to go round. Energy bigwigs at a conference this week identified the rock-bottom gas price as the biggest short-term obstacle to developing greener fuel sources. As if to underline the point, the benchmark gas price dipped to its lowest level since January 2002 as they were talking. Meanwhile, solar plant developer BrightSource Energy pulled its initial public offering on Wednesday, citing poor market conditions. On top of last year’s controversial bankruptcy of Solyndra and the 85 percent drop in industry leader First Solar’s share price over the past 12 months, the sector looks far from healthy.
Still, greens shouldn’t lose heart. The price of generating electricity from the sun’s rays has been falling almost in tandem with gas prices. The wholesale price of panels halved last year, as have solar generation prices: a typical long-term contract in California, a sweet spot for the industry, has plummeted from about 17 cents per kilowatt hour in 2010 to as low as 8 cents, according to Green Tech Media. That brings some solar capacity within striking distance of natural gas at around 6 cents.
And solar power has a distinct advantage: its costs can be locked in 25 years in advance. Gas offers no such guarantee. For an electric utility this is equivalent to a cautious homeowner opting for a safer fixed rate mortgage over a risky floating rate loan.
Moreover, the current bargain U.S. gas price can’t be relied on to last forever, even with hydraulic fracturing uncovering vast troves of the resource. America is also likely to start exporting gas in the next few years, which could tug the nation’s gas price back toward the global average - currently roughly five times higher.
This will be cold comfort for many solar panel makers who won’t survive the industry shakeout that slumping prices are causing. But the rationalized sector that emerges should be well placed to take on all comers.
Read more at Reuters Breakingviews.
TODAY IN SLATE
Meet the New Bosses
How the Republicans would run the Senate.
The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers
Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.
Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.
Why all cracker names sound alike.
Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom
This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059
- Protesters Take to the Streets to Sound Alarm on Climate Change in New York, Across the World
- Knife-Carrying White House Jumper is Vet who Feared “Atmosphere Was Collapsing”
- North Korea: American Sentenced to Hard Labor Wanted to Become “Second Snowden”
- Almost One in Four Americans Support Idea of Splitting From the Union
Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?
A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.