U.S. solar future is somewhat clouded

November 9, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

With the recent spate of bad news regarding the bankruptcy of several U.S. solar manufacturing firms, Chris Warren reminds us that American companies participate in other aspects of the solar value chain and have fared better than cell manufacturers.

Hemlock Semiconductor of Michigan, a global leader in the manufacture of polysilicon used in making solar cells, is profitable and sells much of its product to China.

As the price of solar panels continues to drop, the market for panels expands, and jobs in system design, sales and installation also increase, involving many U.S. workers.

Warren believes that rather than subsidizing panel manufacturing, we should subsidize the installation of systems using a feed-in tariff, which contributed to Germany’s becoming the global leader of installed photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu indicates while we invented solar cells, lithium-ion batteries and other components of the solar revolution, we let our early technological lead disappear. Our nation needs to decide whether we will become observers of the clean energy revolution, or increase our efforts to compete in this growing global industry.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the House Renewable Energy and Efficiency Caucus, has declared, “We can’t compete with China to make solar and wind panels.” He recommended we focus on energy industries at which we can win, which suggests coal, oil and natural gas.

Members of U.S. solar industry are less sanguine about conceding another manufacturing industry to China and have filed a complaint with the Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission alleging China’s subsidy of the PV manufacturing industry makes it impossible for U.S. manufacturers to compete with them.

The U.S. government program of a 30 percent tax credit for residential and commercial installations is set to continue through 2016. The U.S. Treasury Department program, which provided businesses cash grants in lieu of the tax credits, is set to expire at the end of December, which would slow down the rate of large systems installations.

In a recent report, John Farrell declared that if the U.S. had installed solar panels at the same rate as Germany, most of the 10 western Mountain states would now be entirely solar powered. He indicates that 80 percent of the German solar installations are small scale and installed on rooftops. In addition to rooftop installations, PV systems along the roadside of 10 percent of the existing 4 million miles of U.S. roadways would meet our current electrical demand.

Germany is now reaping the benefits of its PV installations as the price of peak power is moving closer to that of base load generators. They report a growing number of days when solar electric sources produce peak electric power at prices below that of base load power.

With nearly 20 percent of their power needs met by renewable energy sources now, and their continued investment in research and development, the German expectation of meeting 80 percent of their energy needs with renewables may be more feasible than critics claim. If scientific projections regarding climate change and peak oil are met, the German and Swedish models of sustainable energy futures will serve them well.

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. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Nov. 9-15, 2011, issue

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