In his New York Times editorial, “Here Comes the Sun” (Nov. 7, 2011), Paul Krugman asserts solar power’s time has come. The Princeton University professor of economics and international affairs writes, “We are, or at least we should be, on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power.” The solar industry has certainly seen impressive growth rates, notably in the last two years. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Washington, D.C., as of August 2011, there were more than 100,000 Americans employed in the U.S. solar industry working at more than 5,000 companies in all 50 states. That is twice as many as in 2009.

SEIA also reports that, as of mid-2011, solar electrical generating capacity reached 3,183 megawatts (MW), enough to power 630,000 homes. The second half of the year brought on an estimated 1,100 MW of additional photovoltaic (PV) capacity compared to 950 MW the previous year. New PV installations in the second and third quarters of 2011 were up 68 and 69 percent respectively over the same quarters in 2010.

Tom Kimbis, vice president of strategy and external affairs for SEIA firmly believes the “energy transformation” Krugman writes of has begun as solar now is considered in an energy solution mix that includes oil and gas.

“Demand forecasters tell us solar will continue to rise at a market gain [capacity added] rate of 10 gigawatts [GW] per year through 2015,” Kimbis said. “Some analysts say that figure is too conservative. Another encouraging forecast made by both the U.S and the European Photovoltaic Industry Association [EPIA] says, in two to three years, the United States and China will be the largest markets of solar energy, surpassing Germany and Italy who grapple with the challenging European economy. This offers a huge opportunity for American businesses to feed into the U.S. solar market.”

The public views solar positively
The 2011 SCHOTT Solar Barometer, a national survey conducted annually by independent polling firm Kelton Research, found nine out of 10 Americans (89 percent) “think it is important for the United States to develop and use solar energy.”

Kimbis said the survey results triggered a few thoughts.

“This is a market not waiting to happen but expand,” Kimbis said. “In California, areas of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York City specifically, solar power is cost-competitive with traditional electrical generation. Solar is also competitive in areas of the country [that] receive the most amount of sunshine [solar radiation]. Then there’s the falling price of solar principally based on the strengths of competition, better manufacturing, successful R&D and more efficient selling practices. The U.S. industry is now working from a much better business model than in the past.

“If we are looking at solar pricing a year or two ago, nobody would have believed you if you said silicon panels are available at less than $1 per watt. But that’s where we are today. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether this country wants to be a lead manufacturer. We are already a robust exporter of solar technologies, averaging close to $6 billion.”

And so, with all the good news going on in solar power, why did Solyndra go under?

“Solyndra failed because it had an unsustainable business model and made some unfortunate choices,” Kimbis said. “In 1998, the company decided to rely on more expensive semiconductor technologies versus traditional silicon for its solar panels. The price of silicon then fell by some 90 percent and put Solyndra in an untenable position with its competitors.”

A September 2011 joint survey by Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates found that, by a margin of two to one (62 percent to 31 percent), respondents supported continued federal investments in solar despite the Solyndra bankruptcy.

Sustaining the momentum
“It’s important to recognize that solar can play a role beyond solar farms and rooftop arrays,” Kimbis said. “Energy storage and solar going hand-in-hand are an important evolution. In this case, the solar power you generate could be stored for emergency power or sold back to the grid to lower energy costs, and then bought back at night when rates are lower. Energy storage R&D over the next decade, including long-life battery systems, will be a huge focus for solar and other energy alternatives. The other challenge is the lack of a smart grid and the ability to quickly and easily connect to the grid. Requirements from the utility or local or state governance in areas of siting, permitting and interconnection standards need to be addressed, as well.”

The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has included solar power in its apprenticeship and journeyman training curriculum for 10 years. NJATC trainers have a unique vantage point regarding the growth and strength of solar in the electrical power industry. Todd Stafford is the senior director who helped developed NJATC’s solar textbook, soon to be in its third edition later this year. Stafford also serves as an instructor for students and in the Train the Trainer program.

“If we’re not quite there, I think we are reaching the point of mainstream solar,” Stafford said. “Grants and rebates help, but to me, mainstream is solar standing on its own. It certainly is doing well in some areas of the country, but that progress needs to grow in all 50 states. What we have seen is an upward shift in solar power awareness by our training program applicants. They hope alternative energy can be a career pathway.”

“During this market downturn, I think the keen interest in alternative energy by the next generation of apprentices bodes well for solar,” said Michael I. Callanan, NJATC executive director. “We certainly want them well prepared. To that effort, we developed PV safety and standards in the absence [for now] of NEC, NFPA or UL standards.”

Winning the game
The steady growth of solar encourages Stafford, but he feels system and power performance needs to be a focus.

“I would like to see PV installations demonstrate a return on your dollar based on kilowatt per hour of power produced,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of that yet. Performance needs to be guaranteed over time. Cost is also still a concern, in particular, the hardware costs of PV systems. Inverters are more efficient, but module orientation needs to be better. Installation quality will determine performance.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative seeks to make solar electricity cost-competitive without subsidies by the end of the decade. As part of its mission, a key goal is to reduce the installed cost of solar-energy systems by 75 percent to engender wide-scale adoption. Its 2011 Advanced Solar Technology Award recipients represent public and private sector entities working on efforts including hardware and nonhardware cost reduction, advancing PV cell efficiency, grid integration and next generation photovoltaic. SunShot also has an “incubator” working with labs to yield further technical breakthroughs and insights.

Creative use of solar is yet another way to keep building momentum. Manufacturers and power developers are combining green power. For example, solar electric vehicle (EV) charging stations may help provide a solution for oil and gas companies battling with utilities on who is going to manage the additional energy consumption EVs will add to the grid. Element Power’s proposed Wildflower Renewable Energy Farm could provide 100 MW of solar and 150 MW of wind in California’s sun- and wind-rich Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles. Headquartered in Portland, Ore., Element is a global renewable-energy company that develops, builds and operates utility-scale wind and solar power projects.

“In the next several years, we see increasing opportunities in commercial and industrial solar markets,” Callanan said. “We educate our students on the reality of the solar market as it stands today and some hurdles it needs to overcome for tomorrow.”

Kimbis summarized the industry’s challenges into three needs: a uniformly accepted grid connection, the removal of procedural costs and a smart U.S. policy that is consistently maintained.

“Those areas need to be addressed, but there’s no denying solar is undergoing a market transformation,” Kimbis said. “It has become the fastest growing alternative energy, creating more jobs per megawatt installed than any other source today. The market has arrived and is ready to expand.”


GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavocomm@comcast.net.