Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Watershed Year for Solar Energy and Electric Cars

During the first half of the year, as module prices shrank as much as 50 percent from a year earlier, many incentive programs continued to offer attractive rebates. In several states, buyers lined up to scoop up 30-year bargain prices for electricity, and incentive funds ran out within minutes.

Equipment prices stabilized in the latter part of the year while incentives were scaled back, cooling the residential market somewhat, just as schools across the country began putting up solar photovoltaic systems as a way to curb onerous electric bills.

The year also marked the start of a historic transformation as federal and state governments approved new solar power plant projects in the Southwest to generate thousands of megawatts for distribution to urban centers like Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area.

In four months, California alone approved nine desert solar power plants totaling more than 4,100 megawatts of peak solar production capacity, about double the total U.S. capacity of all large and small grid-connected solar electric installations at the end of 2009. Projects in Nevada and Arizona are adding hundreds more megawatts, with more planned.

The big solar desert projects alone will create at least 8,000 jobs lasting for years as the installations are built out, and they represent the first wave of a burgeoning solar economy. Many more solar power plants ranging from 15 or 20 megawatts to 1,000 MW are working toward county-level or local approvals in Central and Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

Some of the plans are encountering dedicated opposition from neighbors or from environmentalists concerned about the impact on scenic views, rare plants and animals, and in the case of projects using emission-free Stirling engines, daytime noise. Lawsuits have been filed against several projects.

Projected population growth, a recovering economy, an aging existing fleet of conventional power plants and the arrival of mass-produced plug-in cars mean demand for more electricity is imminent in the next few years. New power plants, whether dirty or clean, are coming. California, led by outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has cast its future with cleaner energy.

In November, California voters, in a state wracked by unemployment well above the national rate, unequivocally rejected the contention that a move to solar, wind power and other renewable forms of generation is too expensive or costs jobs.

Proposition 23, which could have snuffed out the kindling fire of the state’s new-energy economy, went down to defeat by about 61 percent to 39 percent.

“In California, we are going to continue moving forward with our comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, reduces our reliance on foreign oil and ensures the California we love will be the California we hand over to the next generation,” said Mr. Schwarzenegger, who spent much of 2010 traveling the state to preside at the inaugurations of new solar power plants, new factories producing solar equipment, and new transmission lines to carry solar energy.

Throughout the country, from Pennsylvania, to Mississippi, to Oregon and Arizona, companies involved in the solar energy industry announced plans in 2010 for new or expanded factory operations, even as the nation struggled to recover from the worst economic downtown in 80 years. New Jersey maintained its status as the second-leading solar state as measured by installed capacity. Pennsylvania, New York, Oregon, Maryland, Hawaii and several other states saw strong growth in solar energy adoption and the establishment or expansion of solar companies.

The U.S. government, seeing nations such as Germany, Japan, Italy, China and Spain pulling away in the development of solar and wind energy resources and manufacturing, sought to stimulate projects in this country before it became too late. Closer to home, the province of Ontario showed that solar electricity wasn’t just a Southwestern U.S. phenomenon. A feed-in tariff that pays producers of solar electricity spurred rapid adoption of photovoltaic technology. The largest solar PV power plant on the continent is now in Sarnia, Ontario, not in the United States.

Also in 2010, the U.S. military ramped up its drive to adopt solar electric power, in part to strengthen national security. Every military branch participated.

In a March speech at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which played a key role in World War II by developing the aircraft proximity fuze, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said that the compelling need for oil led to open conflict that tested an earlier generation.

“Today," he said, "competition for natural resources, specifically oil, still exists. We know that the global supply is finite, we know it is getting harder to find and to exploit, and that much of it comes from volatile areas of the world susceptible to price and supply shocks largely outside the scope of our control. Demand for energy continues to rise, and although competition for additional energy has largely manifested itself as economic competition as opposed to military action over the past few decades, the potential still exists that some triggering event could set off a chain reaction and bring parts of the world once again into open conflict based not on ideology, but on a desire for resources and the corresponding desire to ensure access to those resources."

Just as world leaders at the start of the 20th century saw oil as the coming means for the projection of economic and political influence, so did some world leaders at the start of the 21st century see renewable energy as the key to the future.

"I believe we need to leapfrog the status quo and prepare for a future that under any scenario requires a revolution in how we produce, deliver and use energy," President George W. Bush’s secretary of energy, Spencer Abraham, said in a 2003 speech in Europe.

For getting energy to many of the world's least developed countries, “The sun is the best hope,” said former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in remarks in Texas oil country at the end of 2009.

Which country or countries will lead this new economy has yet to be determined. In the United States, meanwhile, debate continues on whether science or faith in conventional approaches should guide the nation on its energy path, a situation that increasingly resembles the climate surrounding the Scopes trial of 1925. Then as now, states were not in agreement on where the future lay. The road that was chosen may have saved the nation from extinction.

Today, churches, synagogues and Mormon temples are installing solar photovoltaic systems as an expression of support for both faith and science.

In the development of vehicle electrification, the major U.S. automakers have ignored the debate and moved ahead lest they be left eating the dust of global competitors. The Chevrolet Volt has drawn high acclaim from automotive reviewers, but is to be produced only in limited numbers until at least late 2012. Ford is preparing a giant factory for the assembly of all-electric and hybrid plug-in vehicles in 2012. The Nissan Leaf is to be manufactured in Tennessee in large numbers, also starting in 2012.

Also in Tennessee, the company Dow Corning in 2010 began a project to construct a giant plant to produce crystalline silicon, the basic building block for the majority of solar modules made today.

2010 ended on a high note for the solar electric (and wind) industry as the Congress approved an extension of the Treasury Department’s Section 1603 program, which boosts commercial projects by allowing developers to receive a cash grant in lieu of a federal tax credit.

The Solar Energy Industries Association announced that a study showing that the U.S. is still a key player in the emerging solar economy, with significant exports that create jobs at home.

“Solar is a global industry. The U.S. imports and exports product from every continent,” said Rhone Resch, the association’s president and chief executive, in a prepared statement. “But in addition to being a major net exporter of solar energy products, the industry is creating significant wealth in the United States and jobs in all 50 states.”

“We’re pleased that the solar industry is helping to reduce the U.S. trade deficit through significant exports of solar energy products,” he said. “We are seeing investments in U.S. manufacturing in areas of the country hit hard by the recession – Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio and others. But we’re concerned that there is a lack of stable, long-term federal policies in the U.S. amidst an increasingly competitive global marketplace.”

For 2011 and beyond, the sky is the limit, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In a statement accompanying an announcement by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu about a renewable energy export initiative, the department said, “The prospects for U.S. technology exports focusing on this industry are vast. More than 100 countries now have policies to encourage the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Many of these countries have substantial deployment targets that will drive demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency for years to come.”

As in 1925, the United States, it appears, is near a turning point. The jury is still out.


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