Empire of the Sun

To date solar power has lagged behind its better supported cousin, wind, as the drive for renewable power continues. But, as E&T reports from the Solar Power International conference in Los Angeles, the time is ripe for solar power to take centre stage.

On the face of it solar power seems to provide all the answers to our growing energy needs while also satisfying the requirements to abate our carbon emissions. The fuel is, after all, abundant and free at source.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), our Total Primary Energy Supply (TOES) will reach 21.8TW by the year 2030, up from 13.7TW today. But the solar radiation shining on this planet is 173,000TW, of which 120,000TW strikes the surface. It is the primary energy source on Earth and exceeds our primary energy demand by a factor of 8,000. To meet the TPES demands by 2030 would only require the covering of 0.6 per cent of emerged lands with solar systems that have a net solar efficiency of 10 per cent.

There are of course the usual pitfalls, with well known and well publicised problems holding back its emergence. The solar radiation that hits the Earth is very diluted, only about 1KWth (kilowatt thermal) hits each square metre. The supply of solar radiation is also intermittent; the sun only shines during the day, and geographically it is unequally distributed. Then there are the cost issues, but more of that later.

Solar power comes in many guises. Solar thermal heating and cooling, PV systems - are residential, commercial or utility in scale - and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but all have a bright future.

The meeting of the great and the good in Los Angeles in late October at Solar Power International only served to strengthen the belief that the time is perfect for solar power to flourish. The global forum for the solar industry would not seem the ideal platform to take stock of the health of the industry as optimism has always been strong among the solar converts. But this year the enthusiasm has progressed from cheerful confidence to a very real belief that everything is coming together - technology, policy and public awareness - that will allow the next decade to become one of solar dominance.

According to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) president, Rhone Resch, the solar industry stands at a crossroads. "The question," he says, "is whether we're going to appreciate the vital importance of the policy environment and get serious about shaping it. For our industry, everything hangs on that choice."

In fact he is extremely passionate - some would say fanatical - about the choices. "When it comes to engaging in the major policy battles ahead, we face a choice right here, right now," he explains. "There are two alternatives: Go big, or go home.

"The possibilities of this moment are no surprise - not to us. The American people and our political leaders are appreciating more fully what you have long known: solar is here, solar is ready, and the future we have long worked to build is now."

US position on solar

He contends that at present solar stands in the mainstream of American energy - alongside fossil fuels and nuclear power. According to the Edison Electric Institute, in 2009 solar accounts for 13 per cent of all new utility announcements, and that's up from 6 per cent last year. Regardless of who you asked at the event, they will emphasise that solar has a bright, clean and exciting future.

"When was the last time that anyone described the future of the coal industry as exciting?" Rhone adds. "They might try to convince you that it's 'clean', but it's certainly not exciting.

"The solar industry differs from our competitors not in status but in substance. We are an industry in ascent; they are sectors in decline. Our source is clean and limitless; theirs are toxic and scarce. However, the challenges ahead of us are taller and tougher than any we have faced before. We cannot rely on the goodwill of policymakers to prevail."

The industry has been hard at work removing bottlenecks that have blocked progress. To be sure, growth this year will not be as explosive as it has been in recent years. "But the important point is that our industry will not decline - and that's a substantial achievement," Rhone says.

"All we seek is the freedom to compete, and all consumers want is the freedom to choose their energy source. Instead, the full promise of solar power is being restrained by the tyranny of policies that protect our competitors, subsidise wealthy polluters and disadvantage green entrepreneurs."

Rhone explains that the fossil fuel and nuclear companies are spending millions of dollars on lobbying, PR and advertising, and much of it is financing a deliberate effort to discredit the solar industry. In advertising alone, the coal industry will spend $50m and the oil and gas industries will spend over $100m on advertising this year. Collectively, he claims, this effort has put a target on solar's back. "And guess how much the solar industry is spending on advertising to clear the air? Zero."

But, he adds, "This isn't a battle we can win without ammunition. We can't sustain the hits we're taking without armour. Yes, we have goodwill. And there's no question we have superior technology. But at the end of the day in Washington, good intentions won't stand a chance against millions of dollars and intense political pressure. We have relied on goodwill long enough and if that's the only arrow in our quiver, we will lose.

"Nor can we prevail in the absolutely crucial policy battles that are raging right now. Congress is currently working on a Clean Energy and Climate Bill. The creation of a national renewable electricity standard. Although currently not perfect in design or size, we are pushing for a 25 per cent RES (Renewable Energy Standard) by 2025 and standards that guarantee the growth of solar."

Rhone and the SEIA are also pushing for the creation a national cap and trade programme that allocates 10 per cent of all carbon credits to the states to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Literally tens of billions of dollars of initial funding for the industry are at stake as well as a long-term price signal on carbon that will benefit all solar technologies.

It is not just the solar trade associations that are preaching the gospel; the US administration was also on hand, giving the industry its full backing. "We know the potential of solar," US Secretary of Labour Hilda L Solis explains. "My colleagues at the Department of Energy estimate that in the southwest alone, 6,900GW of solar electricity could be generated. They estimate that solar in the US could be at the beginning of a 25 per cent growth rate, resulting in solar contributing between 10 to 20 per cent of total electricity by 2030.

"And they estimate that solar could create over a million new jobs by 2030.

"I have seen first hand the impacts these investments are having in communities across our country.

"Yet I don't have to tell you that the US lags behind in third globally in this sector - third behind Spain which installed eight times more megawatts of PV and behind Germany which installed five times more megawatts of PV.

"That's why the Recovery Act dedicates $117m for solar - including research and development, deployment and market transformation. That's why the Recovery Act includes $2.3bn in tax credits for US based clean energy manufacturing."

PV Growth

One sector that is rising to the forefront and will be looking to take a lead in the growth of solar is the photovoltaic (PV) industry. Installations of solar PV systems have been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. In 2008, 5,948MW of PV was installed globally, up from 2,826MW in 2007, and was dominated by grid-connected applications.

The United States was the world's third largest PV market in terms of annual capacity additions in 2008, behind Spain and Germany; 335MW of PV was added in the US in 2008, 293MW of which came in the form of grid-connected installations.

Despite the significant year-on-year growth, however, the share of global and US electricity supply met with PV remains small, and annual PV additions are currently modest in the context of the overall electric system.

"The market for PV in the US is driven by national, state, and local government incentives, including up-front cash rebates, production-based incentives, requirements that electricity suppliers purchase a certain amount of solar energy, and Federal and state tax benefits," Ryan Wise, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), says. "These programmes are, in part, motivated by the popular appeal of solar energy, and by the positive attributes of PV - modest environmental impacts, avoidance of fuel price risks, coincidence with peak electrical demand, and the typical location of PV at the point of use."

According to a report from LBNL the installed cost of customer-sited PV systems has declined substantially since 1998, though both the pace and the source of those cost reductions have varied over time. Prior to 2005, installed cost reductions were associated primarily with a decline in non-module costs. Starting in 2005, however, cost reductions began to stall, as the supply-chain and delivery infrastructure struggled to keep pace with rapidly expanding demand.

In 2008, installed costs resumed their downward trajectory, as module prices began to fall in response to expanded manufacturing capacity and the global financial crisis. Preliminary evidence and industry expectations suggest that module price will continue to fall through 2009.

"The historical trend towards declining installed costs, along with narrowing of cost distributions, suggests that PV deployment policies have achieved some success in fostering competition within the industry and in spurring improvements in the cost structure and efficiency of the PV delivery infrastructure. Moreover, the fact that states with the largest PV markets also appear to have somewhat lower average costs than most states with smaller markets lends some credence to the premise that state and utility PV deployment policies can affect local costs."

Yet, even lower average installed costs in Japan and Germany suggest that deeper near-term cost reductions may be possible. Indeed, further cost reductions will be necessary if the PV industry is to continue its expansion in the customer-sited market, given the desire of PV incentive programmes to ratchet down the level of financial support offered to PV installations.

"Solar stands at a crossroads today - a moment of decision that will profoundly shape the history of our industry and, with it, the history of our world," Rhone says. "And like any crossroads, this one demands a choice. We can accept the tyranny of a century of policies that protects our competitors, or we can fight for a new century of policies that secure our rights. We can decide our rights are worth fighting for or we can sit still and hope for the best."

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