University of California Energy Institute
The Market Value and Cost of
Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production
The high cost of power from solar photovoltaic (PV) panels has been a major deterrent to the technology’s market penetration. Proponents have argued, however, that typical analyses overlook many of the benefits of solar PV. Some of those benefits are in the realm of environmental and security externalities, but others occur within the electricity markets. In this paper, I attempt to do a more complete market valuation of solar PV. I incorporate the fact that power from solar PV panels is generated disproportionately at times when electricity is most valuable due to high demand and increased line losses. I find that the degree to which the timing of solar PV production enhances its value depends very much on the extent to which wholesale prices peak with demand, which in turn depends on the proportion of reserve capacity held in the system. In a typical US system with substantial excess capacity, I find that the favorable timing of solar PV production increases its value by 0%-20%, but if the system were run with more reliance on price-responsive demand and peaking prices, the premium value of solar PV would be in the 30%-50% range. Solar PV is also argued to have enhanced value within an electrical grid, because the power is produced at the location of the end-user and therefore can reduce the costs of transmission and distribution investments. My analysis, however, suggests that actual installation of solar PV systems in California has not significantly reduced the cost of transmission and distribution infrastructure, and is unlikely to do so in other regions. I then bring together these adjustments to the valuation of solar PV power with calculations of its cost to analyze the market value of solar PV. The market benefits of installing the current solar PV technology, even after adjusting for its timing and transmission advantages, are calculated to be much smaller than the costs. The difference is so large that including current plausible estimates of the value of reducing greenhouse gases still does not come close to making the net social return on installing solar PV today positive.