U.S., Illinois falling behind in solar production

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113036152232638.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sonia Vogl’, ‘Unisolar flexible rolled roofing on a roof. Roof membranes with integrated solar electric panels are fast becoming the roof of choice for warehouses and stores in California. The product is so popular that it is sold out and awaiting the opening of a new factory in June 2006. Solar Technologies manufactures and installs the roof systems.’);

Once one of the leading states for installed capacity of solar systems, Illinois has fallen down the list due to dwindling support

When we met Mark Burger at the Chicago Solar Partnership about six years ago, he expected increases in natural gas prices would stimulate solar electric installations in Illinois. What has happened with solar electricity now that a dramatic rise in energy prices has occurred?

At the Fourth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 13-14 in Oregon, Burger explained where Illinois now stands in terms of solar electricity. A dramatic global growth in demand has produced a shortage of silicon used to manufacture solar cells. In turn, prices have risen about 5 percent. Delays of months in obtaining panels occur as firms ship them to large, lucrative markets in other countries such as Germany.

Production in the United States dropped as firms concentrated on building production facilities in other countries. Government support for solar electricity within Illinois dwindled somewhat as well, and, while it is helpful, it is far from adequate.

Installed global capacity of solar electricity now stands at 1,200 MW, about the size of one Byron nuclear unit. Next year, installed capacity will increase to the equivalent of both Byron units.

Worldwide, there are now 50 solar electric installations more than one megawatt in size. Germany dominates with 10. As global installations increased in size, Illinois dropped its support for large systems two years ago.

What began as a cottage industry dominated by small, off-grid installations is expected to reach $10 billion in sales by the end of this year. Solar electricity is now a big business with a bright future.

Meantime, manufacturing in the United States has faltered. Ten years ago, we led the world in output. By 1998, Japan captured the lead, and a few years later Europe surpassed the United States. In contrast to Japan and Europe, the United States lacks a coherent national policy on solar electricity. As we lost our lead, job growth in solar electrical manufacturing shifted to other countries. The same has happened in the wind manufacturing industry just as the global market for renewables is exploding.

While the technology is robust and reliable now, it continues to improve in incremental steps. The efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight to electricity continues to climb. Manufacturing processes improve as well. Crystalline solar cells now have 25-year warranties and thin-film cells 20. Inverters that convert the electricity produced by solar cells to that of the electric grid continue to improve and decline in price. Architects are increasingly attracted to building integrated solar systems that serve as cladding, awnings, canopies, skylights and roofing.

In Commonwealth Edison’s service territory, 1,800 kW of grid-connected solar electric systems exist. Spire has installed 1,100 of the 1,800. In the remainder of the state, only 250 kW have been installed. ComEd’s program of net metering has stimulated installations in their service territory.

In 2002, Illinois was one of the leading states in the nation for installed capacity of solar electric systems. While California dominates the country in terms of installed capacity, aggressive policies to encourage solar installations in Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts and dwindling support in Illinois have pushed our state far down the list.

Illinois needs serious incentives and markets to stimulate the installation of solar electric systems. The $5 million-per-year state fund is not sufficient, nor is exclusive reliance on funding small systems sufficient to stimulate a mass market. According to Burger, up to 500 MW of installed pv capacity over the next seven years is essential to attract business to manufacture solar panels in Illinois.

A critical market for solar electricity exists in meeting summer peak demand. As prices escalate to meet demand for air conditioning, long hours of sunlight and solar electric production are an ideal fit. Burger indicated that 100 MW of solar electric capacity strategically placed around the state would be a cost-effective means to meet peak summer demand.

Fossil fuel costs remain unstable, and supplies are unreliable. In contrast, the cost of solar electricity is predictable. At current prices of $7 to $8 per watt, a one-MW installation would provide electricity at $0.17 to $0.18 per kWh over its 30-year life. With federal tax credits, the cost would drop to $0.11 per kWh. With anticipated electrical price increases in 2006, plus the potential for higher peak prices in summer, Burger’s estimate of $0.11 per kWh could prove to be a bargain for Illinois citizens. But such an increase in installations will require a dedicated percentage of pv capacity within the Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Considering the many existing building roofs within the state, we could quickly expand electrical production where it is needed, when it is needed, while providing desperately needed jobs. What are we waiting for?

From the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2005, issue

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