By Michael Mariotte

The nuclear power industry certainly rues the day the concept that atomic electricity would be “too cheap to meter” entered the public’s mind. The phrase has become inextricably linked with nuclear power, but not in the way its creators envisioned: instead of as a success story, it has become a symbol of nuclear power’s economic failure.

“Too cheap to meter” too quickly became “too expensive to use” and “too costly to build.”

So the headline above is offered with some trepidation and a grain of salt; over-promising on solar power will prove no more beneficial than it was for nuclear.

Still, the comparison is obvious. As giant nuclear utilities seek new ways to game the system and bleed ratepayers for every penny they can–whether or not those ratepayers have any anything left to bleed–to prop up reactors that produce electricity normal people simply can’t afford and shouldn’t have to pay for, the cost of solar power just keeps falling and falling.

Today’s case in point: the city of Austin, Texas recently put out bids for 600 Megawatts of new solar power. They received bids for nearly 8,000 MW–a clear indication that we have barely begun to touch the capability of solar to power our nation. Of those bids, nearly 1300 MW, or double what Austin intends to buy, came in under 4 cents per kilowatt/hour.

Those kinds of prices haven’t been seen since the 1960s–and that’s without adjusting for inflation. It’s cheaper than just about any other electricity generation source we know of, certainly cheaper than any new other new generation source.

The problem for the solar industry is that it’s prices are dropping so fast that it’s making large purchasers like Austin question whether they should lock in, even at these rates. Last year, Austin signed contracts for 150 MW of solar at 5 cents per kilowatt/hour, which sounded great at the time. Now they can get solar 20% cheaper. What if they buy just what they need for now, and buy more in a few years, when presumably it will be even cheaper? That’s probably what Austin will do.

But if everyone sits around waiting for solar to actually become almost too cheap to meter, it never will, and it won’t grow at the rate necessary to become a dominant source of electricity in the U.S. either, not to mention being the climate solution we need.

Fortunately, not everyone is waiting; in fact, as we’ve reported here frequently, solar is growing rapidly. And it appears it is growing even more rapidly than the government, at least, has acknowledged. In fact, government estimates of solar generation are off by nearly 50%, according to GreenTech Media, because it has woefully underestimated the amount of rooftop solar in place. Greentech points out that actual solar generation figures indicate “…that solar power in the U.S. now supplies enough electricity to meet the yearly demand of Hawaii, Rhode Island, Alaska and Vermont combined.”

Austin is already a leader in clean energy; our suggestion is that Exelon, Entergy and …read more

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