I believe that the loss of industry players Solyndra, Evergreen, and SpectraWatt opens the market for more innovative solar companies to succeed with smarter tactics and mainstream products that fit into existing manufacturing models. Remember when the dot.com bubble burst in 2000 and, seemingly overnight, some companies ceased making millions hand-over-fist? Flash forward to 2011, when nearly everyone is online, Internet technology has become more accessible and fortunes continue to be made. Real innovation always finds its pot of gold.
We’ve seen a considerable reduction in solar panel costs, but that is exactly why there is reason to be optimistic. Lower prices open markets that were previously barred economically. I believe most people fail to understand the solar sector. Unlike other established markets the solar industry is still a tiny fraction of the overall energy production worldwide. Solar’s competition is really fossil fuel, or in other words, the established way electricity is being generated. With subsidies long in place for nuclear, coal and gas in the U.S. along with the cheap cost of production for coal and natural gas, solar is essentially competing with that $0.10/kWh average cost of electricity in the United States and globally.
It is not only wise we devote our resources toward solar technology; it is essential. We are already facing serious ramifications of fossil fuel emissions. Increases in carbon dioxide concentration along with global surface temperatures are showing a decline in agricultural yields due to climate change.1, This along with melting glaciers and shifts in climate zones do not bode well for climate change stabilization without drastic efforts in greenhouse gas abatement. There are also the obvious human costs of other sources of energy, from water quality issues related to gas fracking and the loss of mountain tops and streams with coal mining to the shocking failure of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant reactors in March of 2011 that has forced one hundred thousand Japanese in a twelve mile radius to evacuate.
Yes, solar energy does need to arrive at end-user costs that are closer to fossil fuels, and concurrently, our research and development areas need to lead us beyond current solar PV technologies. The recent fall of Solyndra is a lesson in over-specialization but is not a damning of solar’s viability. The U.S. has 1,750 MW of PV planned for 2011 and currently employs 100,000 people, more than coal mining or steel manufacturing. Solyndra was producing a PV product that did not fit within traditional balance of system (BOS) solar industry structures. Their novel cylindrical solar modules which have a capacity to capture sunlight from 360º (if rooftops are painted white) and resist snow and dust, also required a shift in the industry as a whole in order to adopt them. Unfortunately, Solyndra’s timing was terrible, global poly-silicon supplies caught up with rising demand, going from a high of $500 per kilogram in 2008 to a mere $35 on spot markets today. Combined with a Chinese manufacturing boom, that lowered the overall cost of panels by 40 percent this year, Solyndra was unable to compete. On October 19th, seven solar PV manufacturers filed a federal trade dispute claiming China is dumping solar panels in the US below their own manufacturing cost, which likely in part, explains the 40 percent decrease in panels. Unfortunately, for Evergreen and Solyndra, that filing is too late.
The United States spends almost $500 billion annually purchasing energy from other countries. About $4 billion of taxpayer money is allotted to nuclear, natural gas, and nuclear company subsidies, even when many geothermal sources are reaching or have reached, capacity. We need a better paradigm. New solar technologies can change this. The U.S. has vast regions that offer some of the sunniest places on earth, and you don’t need to live in the desert to harness solar power. New Jersey is second only to California in adoption of solar infrastructure. Despite the announcement recently that Germany will be lowering their feed-in tariffs in January of 2012, they remain 40% of the total solar market globally while receiving less average daily solar radiation than New Jersey2.
In the U.S., we are seeing a likelihood of long-term thin-film implementation when we develop the right technological fit. Within a few years, we expect at least a dozen markets will be economically viable without subsidies. Tariff reductions are occurring throughout Europe as the EU struggles with the Greek financial crisis. Despite this the solar market there has increased 65 percent as opposed to the 82 percent increase in 2010. While changes in policy are lowering European expectations slightly, the U.S. market is projected to increase by as much as 9 percent this year. The global solar market is expected to install 22 MW of electricity in 2011.
Of course, the largest solar demands will be coming from China and India. From a purely economic standpoint, there will be no reason for China to remain with silicon when better alternatives become available. Solar PV installations in Asia grew by over 57% from 2006-2010, and 2010 showed an incredible 100% increase from 20093 and yet China still exports nearly 95% of their total PV production. However, China recently announced a national feed-in tariff program, increasing 2012 solar market projections.
Many venture capitalists have established funds dedicated to launching green technology initiatives. First Solar, the largest thin-film manufacturer in the world, will see approximately $3.75 billion4 in revenue this year, and there are a number of solar companies emerging with very attractive growth opportunities precisely because there is so much room for improvement in terms of efficiencies and a reduction in materials costs. As with the dotcom crash, the death of Solyndra, Evergreen and others will usher in a more robust solar industry not signal the disappearance of PV as a viable alternative for future energy needs. Both companies were a tiny fraction of an enormous and rapidly growing global market. The egalitarian balance is one that will afford large-scale, global installation of solar energy panels at a price people can manage.
Steven Pleging is CEO/President of Quantum Solar Power Corp. a U.S. based public company engaged in developing and commercializing a revolutionary new solar power technology.
2. Annual average solar insolation for New Jersey is 4.5 – 5.0 kWh/m2/day as compared with Germany which averages 3.0 – 3.5 kWh/m2/day, according to maps provided by NREL and Solargis.info.
3. “Research and Markets; Asia Pacific Solar Photovoltaic Market Outlook to 2015 - China and Taiwan Leading the Demand.” Energy Business Journal. Atlanta: Oct 28, 2011. pg. 38.