Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reliance on Solar Energy, Fossil Fuels May Increase

Concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants following Japan's magnitude-9.0 earthquake could be an unexpected boon for the U.S. solar energy but could also serve as a spur for increased reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Balancing the opportunities and challenges of renewable energy development was a unifying theme for speakers at Tuesday's Greentech Media Solar Summit at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells.

“Renewables have a hard time being deployed at the scale of nuclear,” said Scott Clavenna, CEO of Greentech Media, an energy industry news and market analysis firm. “If you shut down nuclear, you could argue for the commissioning of coal. It's really hard to transition off fossil fuels.”

Solar and utility executives at the two-day event, which started Monday, pointed to financing, reliability and costs as obstacles for for the industry.

Highlights of Tuesday's presentations included:

Utility-scale solar: Keynote speaker Fong Wan, vice president for energy procurement at Pacific Gas & Electric, challenged the more than 250 summit attendees to bring down costs and improve storage technology so solar power can be used 24/7.

“Your success is what leads to lower customer costs for us,” Wan said. “I prefer forecastable output; I like solar that fits the profile of our customer demand in California.”

Financing: Federal energy grants and loan guarantees are essential to maintain current momentum in larger-scale solar development, but may not be sustainable for the long term, a panel of solar and investment experts said.

“The Treasury grant program enables us to do (larger projects) and get into the global market that is very interested in financing these projects,” said Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco solar developer. “The opportunity to tap lenders allows us to sustain our business as a developer and deliver price to market.”

Feed-in tariffs: In a pro-con debate on feed-in tariffs, Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Westinghouse Solar, argued for the incentives, which pay solar owners for their excess production, but said rates must be flexible.

“When there's a policy that sets a price, it's either too high or too low,” he said. “If it's too low, nothing happens. If it's too high, you're going to end up putting out more solar than you need at higher prices.”

Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable development, favored more market-based incentives such as the California Solar Initiative, which decreases consumer rebates as more solar is installed.

“The real problem with feed-in tariffs is they are going to be polarizing and disappointing, and it's going to create backlash,” he said. “I think the market should set the price.”


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