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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Do We Want? Cheap, Abundant Solar! When Do We Want It? Now!

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog

The solar industry is booming, ramping up production capacity and driving costs down steadily towards the mythical "Grid Parity" point - the price point when solar on your roof beats paying your utility bill. That's a game changer and the solar industry is steadily heading that direction.

But as Andrew Leonard (writing at Salon) recognizes, we could hit that magic grid parity point faster with leadership -- and major investment -- from the federal government. With energy prices rising, our economy faltering, and Americans crying out for something to be done, it's time for the clean energy investment that will unlock the potential of solar and other renewables and re-energize America for a new era of sustained prosperity.

Booming demand for solar power will drive worldwide investments in photovoltaic (PV) cells to the same level as the semiconducter industry by 2010, according to a new report from market intelligence firm iSuppli Corp.

PV cell production plants are expected to crank out as much as 12 Gigawatts (GW) of solar cells globally by 2010, up from 3.5GW in 2007, iSuppli predicts. The PV market is expected to grow by 40% annually until 2010 and sustain 20% annual growth rates after that, according to iSuppli chief PV analyst Dr. Henning Wicht.

As solar manufacturing ramps up, the price of solar falls as it speeds down a relatively predictable price curve. For crystalline silicon-based solar cells (the most mature type of PV cell), costs have historically fallen roughly 20% for every doubling in manufacturing capacity. Major PV cell manufacturers Q-Cells AG and REC Group predict price drops to continue as manufacturing ramps up. The two PV giants expect solar system costs to fall by 40 percent from 2006 to 2010.

So we're on the path to solar grid parity. But as prices at the pump and on our electricity bills continue to rise and Dr. James Hansen warns us again about the urgency of our climate situation, there's no time to lose. As Leonard writes, "What do we want? Grid parity. When do we want it? Now."

So what can we do to speed solar along it's merry way towards grid parity - and hasten the day when cheap and abundant solar can slash both our energy costs and our greenhouse gas emissions?

How about a healthy dose of federal government leadership?!

Let's start by cutting through the political demagoguery and posturing in Congress and pass the much-needed extensions of critical renewable energy incentives -- including an eight -year extension of the solar Investment Tax Credit.

As Thomas Friedman wrote this weekend, it's time to "broker passage of legislation that has been stuck in Congress for a year," the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act (H.R. 6049), a bill that "could actually impact America's energy profile right now -- unlike offshore oil that would take years to flow -- and create good tech jobs to boot."

Passing a long-term extension of the solar incentives will create a stable investment environment for solar in the United States, encourage the expansion of US solar manufacturing, and drive solar towards grid parity -- all while strengthening our economy.

If instead, Congress fails to act, preferring to politicize votes over clean energy and offshore oil drilling instead, these incentives -- as well as the critical Production Tax Credit driving record growth in the wind power industry -- will expire at the end of the year. If they do, more than 100,000 good American jobs and tens of billions of dollars in investment will wind up on the chopping block, not exactly smart policy at a time of economic downturn and soaring energy costs.

"Already clean energy projects in the U.S. are being put on hold," Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association told Friedman, as solar and other renewable energy companies try to limit risk in the face of a very uncertain and highly politicized investment environment.

So just as solar is ramping up and prices are coming down, Congress is playing political games, putting the breaks on a booming economic sector and delaying the day when solar energy is cheap and abundant.

If we want the new American energy sources that will cleanly power a new era of economic prosperity, we need to put our money on the table. We need to government leadership and federal investments that can ignite a clean energy future and unlock the potential of 21st Century energy sources like solar.

So let's start with with a long-term extension of the solar Investment Tax Credit and other critical renewable energy incentives. But let's not stop there! America's economy can't wait for the day when clean renewable energy sources can provide abundant, affordable and secure energy, and we can hasten it's arrival by:

  • Ramping up investment in research, development and demonstration of cutting-edge clean energy technologies -- including next-generation solar technologies like thin-film photovoltaics and concentrating solar-electric plants.Economist Jeffrey Sachs recently called on the United States to "increase our annual energy-research budget to $30 billion." In December 2007, a group of over 30 energy scientists called on Congress (pdf) to invest a minimum of $30 billion/year on new clean energy sources and ways to use energy more efficiently. Let's put at least that much money on the table for clean energy innovation and deployment and secure a clean energy future.

  • Major new public works projects could lay the enabling infrastructure necessary to truly unlock the potential of America's abundant renewable energy reserves.A new American supergrid - the interstate highway system of the electrical system -- would unlock the vast solar energy potential of the Desert Southwest and the wind energy reserves of the Great Plains, the "Saudi Arabia of Wind" (see this report for an example - pdf). Just as federal public works projects -- like the federal dams and the interstate highways system -- laid the foundations for the economic booms of the 20th Century, it's time to invest in the infrastructure that will underly a new century of sustained American prosperity.

  • The federal government has enormous purchasing power. The government can accelerate the road to clean, cheap renewable energy by committing to purchase solar panels for government facilities. Just as government purchasing helped buy-down the cost of microchips and laid the foundation for the communications revolution, a solar procurement program can help secure the clean, cheap energy that will power the 21st Century.

Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. Oil powered the economic growth of the 20th Century. But these fuels are the fuels of the past -- their supplies are dwindling, their costs are rising and our dependence on them is imperiling our economy and our climate. It is time to unlock the energy sources -- including affordable solar -- that will power the 21st Century.

If we want our energy to be cheap, we want it to be clean, and we want it fast, we need to invest in the energy sources of the future, not the past. It's time for new American energy!


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Anonymous said...

We talk so much about grid parity and the competitiveness of solar power etc and assuming that the consumers were to pay US$ 0.12 per unit/kWH to the utility companies (assuming it stays there without changes), then I would like to know at what price level for total solar system of 3,000 watts peak if the location taken is any part of California. I also know that to achieve grid parity, the critical cost is that of the solar panel. I would like to know this magic figure in US$ per watt peak for solar panels.