A new transition to solar electricity

Climate change, energy costs and uncertain supplies have been receiving media attention. A recent CBS 60 Minutes program pointed out that the George W. Bush administration has muzzled scientific concerns about the adverse impacts of global warming on the health of the planet and our economy. A recent speech by U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Indiana) called for a long-term energy strategy to cut our dependence on Middle East oil.

While these important topics have received media attention, other energy developments are worthy of note. Two states, California and Michigan, are attempting to accelerate a transition to solar energy.

In January, the California Public Utilities Commission called for a $3.2 billion incentive program for solar electric installations over the next 11 years. The goal is to have 3,000 MW in place by 2017. Installations will be targeted at existing commercial and residential sites and new residential construction. With this program, California would become the world’s third largest solar electric market following Japan and Germany. Programs in all three places rely on government support.

A recent NREL study predicts that solar electricity will be competitive with grid electricity by 2010 if current trends continue. A new report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyzed the costs of two earlier California programs designed to stimulate the use of solar electricity. Costs under a 7-year program from 1998 to 2005 fell an average of 7.3 percent per year, while costs for the 4 year program from 2001 to 2005 fell an average of 4.1 percent per year.

The majority of cost reductions were attributed to reduced costs of installation and non-solar panel components. Installation costs were lower for new homes than pre-existing homes.

Lowered costs of solar electric systems have temporarily stalled due to the shortage of silicon used in making most solar panels. Prices have risen, and some companies are having trouble getting supplies.

Thin film solar cells, which use far less silicon, are expected to gain market share during the temporary silicon shortage. Honda recently announced it will start producing thin film solar cells in a new 27 MW plant in 2007.

Michigan just announced a $37 million subsidy for the installation of a 50 MW thin film solar manufacturing facility in Greenville. The plant and supporting industries are expected to create more than 500 local jobs. This is the first of a total of 300 MW of new production capacity targeted for the community by 2010. Industry supporters claim that a manufacturing facility of 100 MW capacity could provide cost-competitive solar electricity to the grid.

These robust increases in solar electric installations and manufacturing capacity could mark the re-emergence of the United States as a significant player in a global transition to renewable energy. If the expected price reductions occur, we can begin to realize the dream of a sustainable energy future. Energy-efficient homes and businesses and biofueled hybrid vehicles could all have some of their energy needs provided by solar electric panels.

Supportive government policies, such as those in California and Michigan, along with federal and community policies, are all essential to establishing solar electricity as a key component in an energy future that is clean, secure and reliable.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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