The Future of Solar

The Future of Solar PV (Photovoltaic) Energy
1. The Problem
2. The Solution
3. The Results
4. The Benefits
5. An Investment in the Future

1. The Problem:

Traditional sources of electrical power generation are running out as production will peak in the next decade but demand will continue to rise. Energy prices will continue to rise at a higher rate as well as the number of outages during peak hours.  There is the obvious problem of the pollution we are causing to our environment.

From my perspective, the world’s energy needs vary greatly; there is no clear single solution to the problem of supplying the world’s energy.

All forms of energy production have issues associated with them, i. e. –

1. Coal – Pollution/Strip Mining
2. Natural Gas – Cost and Lack of Infrastructure
3. Hydro – Limited Availability/Environmental Concerns
4. Wind – Limited Site and Resource Availability
5. Solar PV – Higher Cost
6. Nuclear – Waste disposal

2. The Solution:

Solar PV (Photovoltaic) systems effectively deliver three to five hours of peak power per day at roughly 10 Watts per square foot. Not one square inch of new land would be required to site PV. Theoretically, there are adequate residential, commercial, Government rooftops, and parking structures in the Uniter States to power a substantial percentage of our country’s electrical needs from solar.

Solar produces a net energy gain in approximately three years. This means that within three years, PV systems begin producing more energy than the energy spent in producing the system and its raw materials. Best of all, the energy produced cost zero emissions.
At today’s prices, a typical solar system costs approximately $8.00/watt, installed and has an operating life in excess of 25 years. For all intents and purposes, maintenance and operating costs are minimal.  Now there are systems available for rent.  Companies allow you to create solar power of a unit that is installed, maintained and monitored by them.  You merely pay the monthly rental fee for you clean electricity which is the same price as you pay the electric company for you electricity.  Also they allow you to lock in a rate now for up to 25 years so you are paying the same price throughout the entire contract. If you want to know more about Solar Rental, check out this post on Nachi.org.
3. The Results:

Solar energy increases the diversity of power and adds stability to a fossil fuel favored energy structure, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
4. The Benefits:

  • Solar can be quickly deployed at the point of use, reducing the need for additional transmission and distribution infrastructure, and cost thereof.
  • Solar operates most efficiently at mid day, when grid demand is at its peak. By decreasing the strain during peak hours, the longevity of existing power plants and infrastructure is extended, lowering further the cost of energy production.
  • By deploying solar over time the cumulative effect of the installed base is impressive. Given its 25-year life, within 10 to 20 years, a respectable portion of California’s energy could be supplied by solar.
  • Once installed, the cost is fixed. In comparison to traditional sources of energy, the fuel cost is nonexistent, and operational costs are limited. A solar system’s cost is amortized over its life, there are no rate hikes due to fuel or operating cost increases.

5. An Investment in the Future:

There are some negatives. Presently, solar costs more than traditional energy generation. Its efficient use is limited to daylight hours unless storage is employed. Admittedly, the solar industry today is not large enough to address all of our needs. The solar industry does not have the financial influence to compete with existing utilities, which typically oppose PV, within political circles. (Industry revenues globally represent only 3.0B/year). Globally, the industry has experienced an annual growth rate in excess of 18% in over a decade. This rate of growth is equivalent to that of semiconductor, telecommunications and computer industries.

Clearly, there is no easy solution to our country’s energy problem. No doubt, a variety of technologies and tools are needed to ensure The United States energy independence and security.

The Solar Industry Needs Your Support!

For those interested in promoting a clean, safe and environmentally friendly source of energy, I urge you to write your representatives in the State and Federal Government. Make it clear you vote for representatives who support current legislation aimed at advancing the deployment of solar energy, such as the net metering law which allows the solar producer to feed surplus power onto the grid, causing the meter to spin backward, lowering the electric bill. Tax credits and deployment subsidies provide the revenues necessary to support research and development of more efficient solar systems.

Remember, in the 1970’s the State of California enacted emission standards that surpassed the rest of the nation. The argument against these standards was the cost of such improvements. Almost 30 years later, the impact is in the air and reflected in the increased fuel economy of the vehicles we all drive.

Solar energy is part of the solution and is a key to America’s long-term energy supply. After all, fossil fuels have a long history of issues with respect to stability of supply and cost.

The Outlook of Solar Power is Bright!

1. Solar will sustain its torrid growth, as costs continue to fall. The solar market has grown at ~40% per annum in recent years, and there are many reasons to think that it will sustain, if not exceed, that clip in 2008. Solar panel prices have followed a predictable experience curve since the 1970’s, with prices dropping by 20% with each doubling of manufacturing capacity. As the silicon-dominated industry moves to thinner and higher-efficiency wafers, increases manufacturing scale, improves wafer and cell processing technologies, sees polysilicon prices return to rational levels, and migrates production to lower-cost countries –- costs will continue to drive towards parity with grid rates, and solar will become increasingly more attractive. Companies have developed creative PPA (power-purchase agreement) financing models to reduce or eliminate upfront installation costs, which will make solar more accessible for a wider range of corporate and residential customers. The election year should also see more state subsidy support for solar and a renewal of the federal tax credit, which will further bolster growth.
2. Emerging startups that benefit from the polysilicon supply shortage will face increased pressure, as the poly-Si crunch begins to ease. Solar veterans can debate the timing endlessly, but many expect additional poly-Si supply to come online by late 2008. Startups that tout silicon-independent solar solutions, like concentrators and thin film (CIGS, a-Si, CdTe, etc.), will face pressure to come to market more quickly, as their cost/supply advantages erode with greater availability of poly-Si and a retreat from spot-pricing. E.g., none of the CIGS thin-film startups, which have collectively received hundreds of millions in investment in recent years, managed to reach mass commercialization this past year as many had projected. They will continue to be under pressure to reach market before the window of opportunity closes.
3. Entrepreneurs will increasingly look beyond cell and module production. As the technology-heavy areas of cell and module production get crowded, more and more entrepreneurs look to startup opportunities in the downstream balance-of-systems part of the value chain. This area has seen less attention to date, yet makes up ~50% of the total installed cost. Novel packaging techniques, distributed inverter / MPP tracking / power management technologies, systems monitoring solutions, streamlining of the installation process, and creative solar financing models — entrepreneurs increasingly recognize the ripe opportunity in this part of the solar business, and 2008 should see heightened startup activity in this area.
4. China and India will begin to emerge as strong domestic markets for solar. With a 500 MW coal-fired plant going up in China every week, the growth of greenhouse gas emissions has reached dizzying levels. China already “boasts” 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, with hundreds of thousands a year dying prematurely from such pollution. Many experts expect that the government will spend tens of billions of dollars in the next 5-10 years –- a significant portion going to solar -– to reach the mandate of 15% from renewables by 2020. In India, where the energy shortfall has reached 15% and domestic coal reserves will run out in ~50 years, the government is actively pursuing incentive policies and feed-in tariffs to help drive the use of solar and other renewables. 2008 should see further policy refinement in both countries, which will spur increased domestic adoption of solar.

Few people doubt solar energy’s potential, but many wonder when it will be reached. “In the long term, solar may well play an important role,” Karg says. “I personally expect a contribution of 10 to 20% of the global electricity production, mainly in the form of grid-connected systems.” However, he does not foresee that happening within the next 20 years.
Nevada Solar One
The sun sits high over the Nevada desert in the Eldorado Valley, gleaming off the upside down rows of mirrored parabolic trough collectors at the Nevada Solar One power plant.
At 64 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity, Nevada Solar One is the largest CSP plant to be built in 15 years. While the plant won’t come online until April, its construction marks the revival of an industry that has seen almost no market growth in over a decade.

The plant was developed by Acciona Energy and Solargenix Energy — two companies that have worked hard behind the scenes to get the CSP industry up and running again.

The plant uses parabolic trough collectors to generate electricity. The mirrored troughs face the sky and direct sunlight to a large metal and glass receiver in the middle of the trough that holds circulating oil. The oil travels to heat exchangers, which heat water and create steam to run a turbine. Parabolic troughs are one of three commercialized CSP technologies.

Further down the row of parabolic troughs, Plant Manager Bob Cable admires the impressive devices before him.

“I’ve been working with this technology for the last decade,” Cable says. “I’ve seen some impressive gains in technological advancement, and now we’re seeing more broad acceptance of the technology as the market becomes more attractive.”

Indeed, after roughly a decade of little growth for the industry, CSP is coming back strong. And it’s not just parabolic trough collectors that are experiencing a boom. Power towers, which use heliostats to focus solar energy on a central receiver to produce steam, and dish systems, which use reflectors to power a generator at the dish’s focus point, are making great strides in technological capabilities, lower costs and market acceptance.

But according to Thomas Rueckert, Program Manager for CSP Management at the U.S. Department of Energy, parabolic troughs are the most advanced.

“Because of the track record [the parabolic trough industry] had in southern California with the 354 megawatts (MW) operating — and actually improving in performance — I think you’re seeing the financial institutions more willing to embrace trough technology because it’s proven and the risks are less,” said Rueckert.

Rueckert was referring to the 354 MW of parabolic trough collectors installed in California’s Mojave Desert between 1984 and 1990. Those plants are still operating today, currently producing energy at around $0.12-$0.14/ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and proving the technology can provide clean, reliable energy to the grid.

The Nevada Solar One plant will produce electricity at around $0.15-$0.17/kWh. While those costs are double what area residents pay for electricity, Nevada Solar One will sell energy to two utilities through a power purchase agreement (PPA). The PPA will ensure a fixed cost for the electricity over a long period, making the solar power economical down the line.

Now that global investment in CSP is increasing, technology costs are decreasing and renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in the U.S. are requiring more solar generation, project costs for all CSP technologies should come down significantly in the coming years, said DOE’s Rueckert.

“All of those things have really opened the door,” he said. “And it’s interesting that all three technologies are pushing forward, which was kind of unexpected.”

Back at Nevada Solar One, Acciona Solar’s Cohen stands before the group of reporters and members of the solar industry who have come to witness the rebirth of CSP.

“The potential is huge. It was difficult to get the attention of the financial institutions in the U.S., but right now we have their attention. We get a lot of people asking us, ‘how can we develop this technology?'”

Dr. Alex Marker, Research Fellow for Schott North America, Inc., stands to the side of Cohen, nodding his head. Schott is certainly feeling the positive impact of increased CSP development. To meet the demand for its glass receivers, the company brought a new receiver manufacturing facility online in Germany last summer and is developing another facility in Spain that will come online in early 2008.

“I think [the market] is going to grow drastically,” says Marker, looking over at the receivers in the troughs. “We’re happy to be a part of this new development.”

Now that financial institutions are noticing CSP, companies like Acciona and Solargenix will be able to tap into the vast resource potential in the Southwestern U.S.

According to figures from DOE’s Solar Lab, 20,000 MW of CSP capacity could come online in the U.S. by 2020 with the proper investment and technological capabilities. Rueckert seemed optimistic that a large amount of those resources will be tapped.

“When this plant comes online next month, it’s going to be a great success,” he said. “The market is exploding and things are really taking off.”

Indeed, a solar panel for your home, whether brand new, second hand or rented, is definitely a wise choice as it helps you in minimizing your electric bills, helps the worlds growing energy needs and is especially an environmentally healthy and helpful choice.