Making the Case for Solar Energy

At a recent congressional briefing, research and industry experts described the tremendous potential of solar power as a way to meet the world’s energy needs.

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Could sunlight solve the global
energy crisis?

A growing number of scientists, business executives and government officials think so. They brought the case for solar energy to Capitol Hill this summer at a congressional briefing co-sponsored by OSA and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. An expert panel highlighted how solar energy can play a far greater role in meeting the energy needs in the United States and abroad.

Solar power is produced through two main technologies: photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, and concentrating solar power, a utility-scale technology that can be combined with thermal storage to provide electricity even when the sun is not shining.

Solar energy is so potent that “one hour of sunlight that falls on the United States can power the entire Earth for a year,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. America could satisfy its own energy demand by placing solar collectors on a square with 92 miles on a side, according to Joseph Romm, former renewable energy chief at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified ideal sites for solar facilities in the American Southwest, according to Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer and manager of the lab’s Thermal Systems Group. The sites receive lots of sunlight, are not in parks or other protected areas, and are relatively flat, so construction would be simple. Just 15 percent of that land could produce all the electricity consumed by Americans today.

Solar has major advantages over traditional energy sources. It’s clean. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. It doesn’t need to be imported from overseas. And, once built, solar facilities can operate for a long time at little cost.

“Solar is manufactured at the point of consumption,” Resch noted. “If we decide we want more solar, we create the jobs here. You don’t drill for it. You don’t mine it.”

Making solar energy equipment is also a great business for communities, according to Doug Hall, director of photovoltaic glass technologies at Corning and member of OSA’s Public Policy Committee. “It’s high tech, has low environmental impact, and creates good-paying jobs.”

To make solar power competitive with fossil fuels, Hall said, manufacturers are trying to maximize automation. Although that will limit the number of jobs created, it also means that it won’t cost much more to produce the technology in the United States than it would in China, for example. Thus, the solar industry is not likely to be outsourced to low-labor-rate areas.

Unlike plants fired by coal, oil or natural gas, Kutscher said, with solar you know the fuel cost is zero. By contrast, developers of a natural gas plant don’t know where natural gas prices will be 30 years from now.

Solar plants generate no uncertainties about fuel availability, either. If the sun stopped shining, we’d have bigger worries than an electricity shortage.

Currently, solar facilities generate less than one percent of America’s electricity. But solar is growing rapidly. U.S. solar generating capacity has increased 30 percent for each of the last five years, Resch said.

“Solar is just scratching the surface,” he said. “The technologies are just starting to emerge. There are incredible growth opportunities.”

This year, U.S. solar facilities can produce about 4 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, according to Hall. That’s projected to grow to between 15 and 30 GW by 2020. But America still trails other countries in harnessing the sun’s energy.

Spain has been a real leader because of strong requirements in that country that utilities use renewable resources, Kutscher said. A German company is the world’s top producer of solar cells, according to Resch, and Japanese companies are also leading manufacturers. France, Greece, Italy and South Korea have followed Germany and Spain in adopting long-term incentives for renewable energy.

In contrast, the U.S. Congress adopted a two-year tax credit that expires at the end of 2008. “You can’t build an industry on a two-year tax credit,” Resch said.

First Solar, the world’s fifth-largest producer of solar equipment, manufactures its products in Ohio but sells 98 percent to Germany and Spain and none in the United States.

Fossil fuels have dominated because they’ve been less expensive than alternatives and can be stored until needed. Solar is overcoming those disadvantages, but government assistance is needed for the immediate future, solar advo-cates say.

With the existing 30-percent tax credit, Resch said, Arizona Public Service plans a 280-megawatt solar plant that will produce electricity for about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s just a penny more than a comparable natural gas plant, according to Kutscher, and the price of gas is likely to rise. That solar plant will be able to store sun-produced heat in molten salt for up to six hours and use it to make electricity after dark.

Despite its potential, solar energy technologies are far from a sure—or quick—thing.

“We do have some technical challenges, and we need to continue to invest in research and development,” Resch said. He also emphasized the importance of an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates optical design and engineering, optoelectronic materials, light-matter interaction, electrical engineering and manufacturing science.

But the Achilles’ heel of solar energy initiatives is that the entire industry is based on government incentives, Resch said. If the German incentives were to go away, the market would also vanish, and the same would be true in Spain and the United States, he said.

In order for solar to become a sustainable alternative, governments and utilities must adopt solar-friendly rules and regulations, according to Resch.

Legislation to extend the investment tax credit through at least 2014 passed the House in May but was stalled by a Republican filibuster in the Senate at summer’s end.

To view the presentations from the briefing, please click here.


Tom Price is a freelance journalist who specializes in public policy issues.

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Making the Case for Solar Energy

At a recent congressional briefing, research and industry experts described the tremendous potential of solar power as a way to meet the world’s energy needs.

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