In recent years PSE&G the main local power company has been installing solar panels on utility poles. Many have long considered this to be a complete folly. Well I am here to both prove them correct and show an inaccuracy on the PSE&G website about these panels.
During Hurricane Sandy a number of utility poles came down in my opinion largely due to the large sail like solar panel bolted to them. All my simple analysis will exclude damage caused by solar panels and maintenance costs.
Hurricane Sandy is was caused me to start thinking about this. I looked on the back of one of the downed panels and found out how much power they are rated for. The panel was rated for a maximum of 200 watts (AC). A MAXIMUM of 200 watts! It also must be pointed out that this is when the solar panels are at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). I will also assume that the price of this unit is about $650 as this seems to be the approximate price of a good solar panel in this wattage range. Given all the things stacked against the solar panels like our climate, clouds, winter, and trees, I will assume (very generously in my opinion) that they generate about 50 watts for about 8 hours a day on average over the course of the year. The manufacturer of these panels Petra Solar gives a data sheet for these panels and the dimensions are given as 66.14" x 39.40" or about 5.5 ft by 3.3 ft. They also confirm the output of 200 watts, however the PSE&G website claims they put out 235 watts (DC), they do however have a 240 watt (DC) max INPUT. This may just be do to me not understanding what they are talking about, but I rather suspect they like having a higher number on the site. It will also be noted that Petra Solar give a limited 5 year warranty. I will assume the panel has a 10 year lifespan (which is also very generous).
Its time to do some simple math (50 watts)*(8 Hours)*(1 kW/1000 W) = 0.4 kWh, so each day on average one panel generates 0.4 kilowatt hours (The average American household uses about 31.5 kWh a day). So (0.4 kWh)*(365 days/year)(10 years) = 1460 kWh, which means that over the course of 10 years that panel will power one house for about 46 days (this is of course assuming that the electrical usage of the average American stays the same for 10 years, which is a very silly thing to assume). Lets now calculate the cost of the power coming from that panel. ($650/1460 kWh) = $0.4452/kWh or 44.52 cents/kWh. PSE&G rates(page 51) are 16.57 cents/kWh (NJ has on average the 4th most expensive electricity in the country). This means that over the course of its lifetime the solar panel is 2.69 times more expensive than the normal grid power cost, in fact it would take 26.87 years for the solar panels to break even at current rates.
The final analysis shows very clearly that theses panels are totally stupid, and a huge waste of money. These costs don't include the cost of instillation which with unions could increase the initial cost by 50%. Additionally, this doesn't take into account damage they cause due to storms which can exceed the simple cost of replacing the pole due to property damage and people being out of power. So basically they exist because uneducated people who can't do simple math think they are a great idea. Oh also the government gave huge tax breaks for putting in these humongous wastes of money.