Solar Subsidies

We are installing over 30 solar panels on our roof. The City of Austin currently offers a rebate up to $15,000 for 60 per cent of the cost, and the federal government gives a 30 per cent credit on the remainder. With those subsidies, the rate of return on our own investment is 17 percent — making this is a superb deal for us.

A neighbor in the Netherlands has 4 solar panels on his roof, a strangely small number.  I asked why.  His answer:  The Dutch government pays up to €1500 if you install a solar installation.  Each solar panel costs him €450, with a fixed cost of about €200 for the installation. Thus his average rate of return on his 4 panels is about 25 percent, a great investment.  He would get no subsidy for a 5th panel, so the marginal rate of return on it would only be 4 percent for him. Small wonder that my neighbor has his unusual solar installation.  

Both my Dutch neighbor and I benefit from the subsidies–but should our governments be using taxpayers’ money for this, especially since I bet that most of the beneficiaries are well into the upper part of the income distribution?


If we are talking about energy subsidies, I guess you could ask the same question about the Government paying huge subsidies to oil and gas companies. I think you are missing the point slightly about upper income levels (which is a guess by you anyway). This isn't about subsidizing people's income, its about reducing the dependence on fossil fuel. Think how much energy could be saved if even a small percentage of homes in the US harvested free, renewable energy from the sun. Huge opportunity in sun-belt states. Worth susidizing? I think so.


The reduction in fuel consumption is absolutely miniscule compared to the cost to taxpayers. Let's check the numbers to see.

Let's say the solar panels provide half his power, and he consumes $250/month in electricity in his home. That's a savings of $125 per month, which comes to $1500 per year. Taxpayers paid $18,000.

The cost of fuel (coal being the largest fuel for electricity production in the USA) is around 18% of the total cost of the electricity.

That means the fuel savings is $270 per year. Taxpayers just paid $18,000 so that $270 less coal is used each year. That's a PHENOMENALLY bad deal. Let's say taxpayers pay 2% interest on the bonds used to pay that $18,000. Each year, the interest alone is $360 to pay for $270 less coal. The numbers are very, very much not in favor of this sort of subsidy being a good idea.


"Let’s say the solar panels provide half his power, and he consumes $250/month in electricity in his home."

I think I begin to see your problem. $250/month? Mine's usually under $50.

On the question of subsidies in general, we might think a little about the massive government-funded (and still mostly government-run) hydroelectric power development that started around the beginning of the 20th century, and was greatly expanded in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt's WPA &c. It's certainly arguable that without the power from those plants the US would not have developed nuclear weapons or won WWII.

Frank Warta

Given that larger homes and higher income earners tend to use more energy, incentives to offset energy use even if it generally benefits those who "need" less benefit may not be bad. The thing it makes me wonder though is if lowering the absolute cost of high energy consumption activities may lead to worse behavior and higher total consumption. If someone with a large home realizes a measurable decrease in their total monthly expenses will they be likely to run their A/C more often or less likely to worry about turning off lights and other devices? Do we accidentally reduce a disincentive of bad behavior? I guess part of the answer would lie in why we make the consumption choices we do regardless of income, but for people with greater sustained wealth the psychology of this kind of decision making could be very telling.


You're welcome. Instead of sending my kids to college, I'm paying for your solar panels. Or, more accurately, my kids are paying for your solar panels, since they will inherit the deficit.

With respect to the other comments about "huge subsidies of oil and gas companies" and "energy independence", bull hockey. Oil and gas companies pay a billion times more (literally) in taxes than do solar. You can argue they should pay more, but there's no subsidy. More importantly, energy independence built on a transfer of wealth from middle-class to upper-class Americans is not energy independence at all. It is perverse.


I dont want to sound like a filthy hippie here, but isn't at least SOME of the cost of everything we do in the Middle East an indirect oil and gas subsidy when you get down to it.

Sam Devol

"but should our governments be using taxpayers’ money for this, especially since I bet that most of the beneficiaries are well into the upper part of the income distribution?"

Regardless of the income level, the individual requires less electricity from the grid, so it effects society as a whole...


Since the public benefits from home solar installation, it does not seem unreasonable that the public (government) encourage their use. Solar panels on a house reduce the load on the electric infrastructure, reduce demand for coal and gas energy sources (lowering their cost to the public that does use them), don't release pollution into the envronment (that would be a public health hazard) of the forms of CO2, NOx, mercury, arsenic, lead, etc.


So, there were about $18,000 worth of taxpayer money going toward the project. I don't know your specific house's power needs, but let's say you have a pretty good sized house (which might fit with 30 panels being able to fit, depending on the size of the panels)

If you normally consume $250/month of energy, and the panels can cut your outside power consumption by 50%, then that's $125 of energy per month ($1500 per year). Taxes paid $18,000 to save $1500 per year.

That takes 12 years to recoup costs. More if you consider that time cost of the $18,000 - at a 3% interest rate they pay on the bonds covering the solar panel subsidies. If that is taken into account, then the panels take just over 16 years to repay the taxpayer cost.

But, it gets more complicated still. The taxpayers don't exactly recoup costs - power companies will need to produce less power, the individual solar panel owner pays for less power, but the taxpayers in the community never actually recoup costs, at least not directly. It's possible that power companies might receive less in subsidies from taxpayers, but that's a very uncertain and diminished savings.

Frankly, the taxpayers are getting screwed, based on the taxpayer directly recouping costs.

The argument FOR such subsidies is that the ancillary savings to the community are worth the $18,000: reduced CO2 emissions and reduced consumption of scarce resources like coal/oil/natgas. (I'll mention, but not pursue the environmental costs of solar panels - rare earth metals are notorious pollutants at every stage of development from mining to manufacturing to disposal.)

The CO2 emissions savings are phenomenally miniscule, so I'm going to drop them from consideration. That leaves the reduced consumption of scarce resources. Given current prices and projected prices of said resources, I have a very, very hard time imagining that the reduced consumption of a household is worth $18,000 to society. The cost of the coal (the largest single source of power in the USA) for a plant is only 18% of the total cost of the energy.

Of the $1500 per year in reduced (coal) power consumption, only 18% ($270) is reduced fuel consumption.

So, that $18,000 of taxpayer money is gaining the taxpayers around $270 per year of reduced fuel consumption.




Your comparison is flawed. The amount the taxpayers benefit in this case is the difference between the price of power on the spot market in ERCOT and the fuel charge Austin Energy directs at it's ratepayers. This price is based on supply and demand, not based on the average fuel cost to run a coal-fired power plant. This works out to far more than $270 annually. Your time cost of money argument is also flawed because you are ignoring the 2-3% annual increase in the cost of fuel.

Mark West

The short answer? No......the subsidies only go to those wealthy enough to pay for a solar installation.

This is Obamanomics at its worst. If the government was not handing over other taxpayers money you would not be getting your "great investments" and you would not be buying the panels. The money has to come from somewhere. But then you already know that.

More power to you for being able to exploit this loophole but don't look for forgiveness on your blog.

Mike Barone

You may disagree with the policy, but to call it a "loophole" is a little disingenuous. It's a direct subsidy for a specific item.

And while I agree it's not directly cost effective policy, it's also a minuscule expense, relatively speaking. Anything to get people thinking about alternative energy is a positive in my book. Plus, the easiest way to get the alternative energy industry to a financially sustainable place is to spur investment so more research can happen.

I always felt that one of the government's most important functions is to incubate unprofitable industries that may benefit humanity into profitable ones because there's little incentive for private industry to do so. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.




Did I miss something by not understanding the whole "neighbor" in the Netherlands thing?

Mr. W

Me too. Is he in Austin or Holland. Or is "The Netherlands" a town in Texas? If so what is the name of their HS football team? "The Clogs?" "The Windmills?" (Not in Texas) ?


The correct way to handle this from an economic point of view is for the government to tax various forms of energy use depending on the externalities they create. Fossil fuels would be taxed based on carbon emissions. Coal would probably get some extra tax because of the heavy metals, acid rain, and such. Gas would be taxed based on whatever costs are caused by fracking. Solar would be taxed based on the environmental costs of mining whatever materials went into it. If solar is the cheapest source of power after all of those costs are added, then people should install it.

From a technical point of view, getting the correct taxation levels correct would be a challenge, but doable. From a political point of view, I'm not going to get my hopes up. There was a post here last week about "spending" through the tax code, and this is a classic example. As long as subsidies are characterized as "tax cuts", they will get enough bipartisan support to pass. And so, we get weird situations like this.


Ian Woollard

The thing is that the cost of the solar panels are subject to significant economies of scale, so if the governments give rebates now, then even if only the well-healed people take up the offer now, then the much less well-healed people do much better in the long run.

There's always early adopters and late adopters, and the early adopters are mostly well healed for many technologies.


That is a pretty massive subsidy, the usual payoff for solar panels is pretty poor. But the truth is that right now without subsidies the solar industry would not exist. So the question really is, "should we, as a nation, invest in solar energy now or not?" The straight financial return to taxpayers isn't going to look good for many years but if you look at the big picture of the value of the US increasing renewable energy production having a competitive solar manufacturing industry. If we wait until solar is cost-competitive with coal, a fuel that we (in)conveniently don't pay the true cost of counting all the externalities, we're going to be in an awful lot of environmental trouble. We're also going to be buying all our solar panels from overseas, because other countries (China) are investing in the technology with the understanding that the future of energy is going to be necessitate a massive shift away from fossil fuels.



Interesting article but you're using outdated tech. is the next step.
Thin film ,PV use will shrink.

Paul Morini.

The $6B annual subsidy for corn used in the manufacture of Ethanol, that was just abolished, is one of the many subsidies (not tax benefits) that the oil companies receive. It was not paid to farmers, but oil companies. Oil company subsidies are hundreds of times larger than subsidies for renewables on an annual basis.

Sandy C

I'll bet most everyone reading this buys insurance. Why? It never pays now. Because it pays bills in the future that we couldn't afford. Same w/ solar and renewables. We can NOT afford to wait until it's cost effective. That will be too late!! To say nothing about the NEW jobs a new industry will create if we're the best in the world @ it.

Uncle Mike

That's easy. These subsidies are not for you; they are for the community. It makes no difference, for the purpose of these subsidies whether the homeowner is rich or poor. The community benefits by burning less coal, gas or nuclear fuel for energy (and building less or smaller power plants). It benefits by having fewer transmission lines polluting the air with ozone and extra background electro-magnetic fields. It benefits by having homes with energy security, so that if there is an outage for whatever reason, the home will have some hot water or power(those panels appear to be solar hot water, not photovoltaic, yes?) And about those Dutch subsidies: the center-right Dutch government looks like it is on the way out because the even farther right wings nutters have had it with austerity. Expect those subsidies to increase, and then your very frugal Dutch neighbors will add more panels. How do you separate a Dutchman from his guilders? You don't!



Should we subsidize solar panels in cold places like the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands, or in sunny/warm countries like India, most of Africa, or South America? And if we choose the second option, should we subsidize solar panels for the industry, the middle classes, or "the bottom of the pyramid"

Sean r.

Your whole premise is that subsidies should be repaid in value to the tax payer... Please do this calculation on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq... 3000 people died in the twin towers divided by the cost of two wars equals how much per person and how does each citizens recoup this cost... Sometimes straight math just doesn't make sense... Also, subsidies are there for this exact reason... The math just doesn't pan out without them...


In a case like that, we need to include also the cost of avoided future consequences, or in other words, the cost of what might have happened if al Qaeda had been allowed to continue unimpeded after 9/11.

A better - or at least less politically loaded - example might be the money spent on Y2K. Was it money wasted because none of the predictions of disaster came to pass? Or did the disasters not happen because of all the money spent fixing problems before they happened?

Russell Harris

Interesting debate viewed from Australia - so some comments from here, where we also have some Government support for solar PV:
- a recent review found that solar panels are overwhelmingly bought by middle to lower income households, not wealthy households. But I do think there is a gap for the very low income households, who typically spend proportionately more on energy and have limited capacity to fund the up-front cost of solar panels.
- a University of New South Wales research paper found A$6-9B in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, ranging from sale of below-market price coal to power stations to a tax incentive that encourages some consumers to drive their cars more (ie the more you drive the greater the tax break)

Interestingly, the cost of panels has fallen so dramatically that the bulk of the cost is in the installation. Costs can only be compressed as installers gain experience.

Governments provide incentives to solar for a range of reasons:
- fuel independence: in 20 years, 80% of Europe's gas will come from Siberia
- investment: worldwide, renewable energy investment has overtaken investment in fossil fuel technologies. In Australia, about A$5B has been invested in new electricity generation while fossil fuel investment has stalled.
- jobs: in Australia, with a relatively low uptake of solar, the number of jobs in the wind and solar sector is about equivalent to electricity generation employees
- solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuel power in some situations. As energy costs in Australia have risen 50% over the past 5 years (and are conservatively forecast to do the same again over the next 5)
- it's a electorally popular, as solar is seen as the 'cleanest of the green'.


Enter your name...

This isn't the primary purpose of encouraging solar installations, but:

Solar panels make a useful backup electrical system. I'm in California, where any kind of weather is a natural disaster (it rains, we have mud slides. It doesn't rain, we have water shortages. And so on). A few months ago, my area lost power for most of three days. People were running all over, trying to find places to re-charge their cell phones and laptops. One of the grocery stores had installed solar panels, so they were able to keep the checkstands running. One of the restaurants had a stash of propane lanterns and gas stoves, so they kept serving meals. The library had skylights and lots of windows, so they stayed open during daylight hours and checked books out manually. But pretty much everyone else closed down.

It made me think, though: those subsidies ought to be going to government buildings. It's great that the grocery store had a bit of electricity, but the library, the police station, the fire department, the city offices, the schools, etc. should have. And if they did, then the taxpayers would directly get the benefits from these subsidies.