The solar future could be here now

January 4, 2012

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

Capturing the sun’s energy for home or business use is simple — south-facing windows will provide some heat. Adding solar thermal collectors will provide hot water or additional interior building heat. Somewhat more sophisticated is generating electricity with building-integrated PV panels. Adding an appropriate amount of insulation, insulating glass, LED lighting, energy-efficient appliances and an energy storage system will make a home or building energy independent.

We know how to do it, but the national commitment to subsidizing fossil fuels, along with low natural gas prices, limits the widespread acceptance of this approach. If concerns over peak oil, climate change and environmental damage from fossil fuel consumption were accurately reflected in the price of energy, the new energy paradigm would be more widely implemented.

Dramatic price reductions in the cost of PV modules occurred this year as the marketplace has been flooded with low-cost panels from China just as other manufacturers were increasing production, forcing a number of solar PV manufacturers to close or cease production. It appeared that some firms were selling panels below the cost of manufacturing them.

According to Solarbuzz, roughly 25 percent of the solar module prices are below $2 per watt. The lowest price cited was for multicrystalline panels at $1.14 per watt. With module costs of 35 to 40 percent of the system costs, PV system costs are at an all-time low.

The World Trade Organization is considering imposing an anti-dumping duty against Chinese modules, which would raise the price of solar modules. According to Chris Brown of Asian Cleantech Gateway, China recently announced a national goal of 15 GW of installed PV by 2015, which represents a 50 percent increase from an earlier plan. China has a production capacity around 40 GW per year while its existing domestic market is about 2 GW. Stimulating domestic demand will reduce exports and may increase the cost of solar panels.

Installed system costs will also rise if federal or state incentives supporting renewable energy were either reduced or eliminated.

Kevin Bullis believes future PV manufacturing competition will focus on upgrading panel efficiency and reducing the cost involved in installing solar panels. Installers in the U.S. point out that eliminating differences in local permitting standards would also reduce costs.

With economic prospects and job opportunities looking bleak, it would seem we could put the excess solar module manufacturing inventory to good use.

Many people can afford solar installations today if they choose them rather than buying larger TVs and fancier electronic gadgets, which increase electrical demand. If people have extra cash and find themselves unsure where to invest it, making a solar investment will provide a measure of energy security for years to come.

Another energy investment is to start replacing incandescent and compact flourescent bulbs with the ever-improving LED lighting systems. Their costs are dropping, and the quality of lighting is improving dramatically. A friend recently calculated that if all lighting in this country were replaced with LEDs, 150 of the 1,000 large utility-scaled generators would no longer be needed.

From the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue

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