Is a solar boom on its way?

October 21, 2009

2009 Solar DecathlonBy Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Oct. 8, at the opening of the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $87 million will be available to support the development of 47 projects to help accelerate the use of solar energy by individuals, businesses and communities. The projects are part of an effort to achieve cost-effective solar electricity by 2015.

The projects selected for awards fall into four categories:

Seven projects will evaluate the impact of large amounts of solar electricity on the reliability and stability of the electric grid.

Sixteen cities have been selected for projects that will address barriers to solar adoption in urban settings and support innovative approaches expected to be widely replicated.

Nine colleges, universities and local organizations will lead regional solar installation “train the trainer” programs to prepare qualified installers.

Fifteen projects at existing DOE national laboratories will focus on improving technologies, devices and processes for both the PV and Concentrating Solar Power Industries.

Wisconsin, long a leader in renewable energy, has secured funding for several projects.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Inc., has been awarded $3,307,709 to provide instructor development and organize a Midwest network of instructors, installers, engineers and administrators to create and share instructional resources.

Two cities in Wisconsin—Madison and Milwaukee—were selected as Solar American Cities. Madison received its grant in 2007. Its focus is to showcase how a Midwest city can dramatically increase its use of solar energy, expecting to double its use within two years by simplifying and accelerating installation. They will also assist potential solar system owners in decision-making, contracting and permitting of solar installations. The installations will also serve to prove to local residents that solar systems actually work in their community.

Madison will also develop a Solar Information Center modeled after the one in Freiburg, Germany, to support rapid, sustained deployment of solar in the Midwest.

Milwaukee’s solar energy initiative, Milwaukee Shines, will leverage the experience and expertise of its sister city, Madison. Milwaukee will promote solar thermal and solar electric technologies by developing a local workforce and industry, creating financing options for solar projects and developing consumer outreach campaigns.

The federal green stimulus package has arrived at a critical time as the solar industry has struggled in the recent economic downturn. According to an article by Scotten W. Jones in Photovoltaics World, solar had experienced a 44 percent average growth rate from 2005 through 2007. In 2008, the growth rate exceeded 90 percent, but fell dramatically in the first six months of 2009 because of economic turmoil and the dramatic increase in solar cell manufacturing capacity.

While the industry was in a major slump, solar cell manufacturers continued to ramp up production by 60 percent, adding to industry woes. As projects were canceled or put on hold because of the unavailability of funding or a desire to preserve capital, manufacturing facilities were shut down and workers laid off.

The average worldwide plant utilization in 2008 reached 64 percent, but fell back to 41 percent in 2009. Given the excess capacity, Jones expects it will be 2012 before plant utilization rates exceed 60 percent. A dramatic increase in solar cell manufacturing capacity in China enabled them to achieve three times the manufacturing capacity of the world’s second-leading manufacturer, Germany. China’s increased capacity is a major source of industrial overcapacity.

The overcapacity is expected to lead to a major consolidation within the industry.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the October 21-27, 2009 issue

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