PARIS – Bad news for the solar business has been piling up lately. It might have all started with the overblown Solyndra fiasco in the United States in 2011. Then comes China’s Suntech Power bankruptcy in March, followed new punitive EU tariffs – announced earlier this week – of nearly 12 percent on China-made solar panels. Focusing on these events could explain the waning interest in solar power in the United States.
Even though it’s happening across the Atlantic, a continuing trade tariff battle between Europe and China also contributes to solar’s bad rap. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling weary about the news that China is retaliating against EU solar duties by launching a probe into European wine. Such a classic tit-for-tat maneuvering in trade disputes has always been a farce. It will not help generate more solar power or inspire people to believe in its potential.
Strangely enough, Japan, where I just went for a brief visit, seems relatively free of solar-phobia. On the contrary, people are now saying that Japan is in the process of unleashing its solar potential.
The day I landed in Tokyo last week, I read an IHS report with the headline: “Japan set to become the world’s largest solar revenue market in 2013.”
IHS pointed out that Japan’s solar installations surged by “a stunning 270 percent (in gigawatts) in the first quarter of 2013,” positioning the country to surpass Germany to become the world’s largest photovoltaics (PV) market in terms of revenue this year.
More specifically, “Japan is forecast to install $20 billion worth of PV systems in 2013, up 82 percent from $11 billion in 2012,” IHS said. “In contrast, the global market is set for tepid 4 percent growth. The strong revenue performance for Japan this year is party driven by the high solar prices in the country.”
It’s important to note, though, that Japan is expected to install fewer gigawatss (GW) in 2013, compared to China, which still is the world’s largest market in GW installation. Driving Japan to the top of the solar market chart is the high price of PV systems in Japan, according to IHS.
As a native, I’m familiar with the popularity of solar energy in Japan. In the 1980’s, my late father, an engineer, installed on our house our neighborhood’s first solar rooftop. On a sunny day, my mother never had to turn on the gas to fill our deep Japanese bathtub with hot water.
Fast forward 30 years. What’s the real driving force behind such a surge in solar power generation in Japan today?
PVs are a good start, but it would seem to me that another good line that has made a little progress, but not enough is the ability to turn the Sun's heat into energy. Making energy from heat MAY be significantly more efficient that purely capturing the electrical capability of Photovoltaics. Using the energy capture from heat (say in an extremely hot attic in summer), and using that heat energy to cool the house would provide a solution to many problems as Global Warming continues. A hybrid material (that could do PV and capture some wasted heat energy) would be even more efficient.
The Fukushima incident on March 11, 2011 might have been a wakeup call to Japan that a natural disaster hitting a major nuclear power plant might be able to wiped out a country.
Energy will continue to be the driving force of the economy. Generally speaking, people are cautious of fossil fuel. Nuclear seemed to be the logic next step and it actually has be one of the major energy sources to various country including France, Japan and China. Nuclear can be dangerous and will slowly fade away. What's next? Here we are - Solar.
In addition, Japan has to find a way to boost the economy. Solar panel installers seem to be a logic move to fill the gap because of the lost of manufacturing segment.
Bert, you are correct. But there is also more to the story -- which I tried to explain on the following page. However, I need to apologize that somehow the second page of this story disappeared on me from this site. I just restored the second page. Please read on. Thanks!
Okay, the second page was definitely essential.
I would agree that using nuclear power or fossil fuels to generate electricity imposes costs that are not always reflected in the price. Still, though, the point the article seems to be making is that government subsidies can cause market distortions to the point that non-competitive solutions win out. Is that surprising?
As an aside, I think that commercial PV generation ultimately will make more sense than individual small systems. Mainly because, your average joe has a way of letting such (still) non-essential systems degrade, once the newness and excitement has worn off. "I'm tired of having to hose down those panels," for example. Or, "Gee I didn't know it was going to cost so much to fix them or replace them," when things go not as planned.
Spent solar panels also create recycling costs, apparently.
There is another country that drank the renewable kool-aid and tried to ditch nuclear, Germany. Let's see how well that's worked out: 10+% per year increase in electricity prices, grid instability, dozens of coal fired power plants under construction all for the low price of hundreds of billions of tax money. I hope Japan enjoys huffing coal dust as much as the Germans do, otherwise they'll have to get used to it.
The reality is solar has some niche uses but powering the grid is not one of them.
Combo SolarPV / SolarThermal panels are readily available though not at the low costs of SolarPV. The low cost currently of natural gas has created less incentive for SolarPV.
In terms of waste heat in your attic being used to cool your house, thermodynamics tends to work against you, i.e. the difficulty of extracting energy with small temperature differentials. Total energy stored in heat in your attic is not really large either.
"Heat" from the sun is really just longer wavelength radiation and concentrated PV does collect longer wavelengths to some degree.
Solar Thermal systems are readily available and used for not only solar water heating, but in southern climates is used to drive air conditioning.
Solar without storage has limited capability though and we have not solved the storage issue yet. In many areas, Japan included, winter collection is too low for solar to solve the energy requirements.
Our present Nuclear reactors are unfortunately Uranium based. Expect to see thorium cycle which is significantly safer start to come into the forefront.
Junko's comment that her engineer father made a solar installation on the family home in Japan points out that when we talk about solar power, we have to define what we are referring to.
Back in the 70's, I worked for a HUD/ERDA sponsored initiative to promote alternative energy. OPEC was in first flower, gasoline prices were rising over $1/gallon, and there was strong interest in reducing dependence on foreign oil. What we pushed was what Junko's dad apparently did: solar hot water heating. Hot water heating was about 20% of the average residential energy bill, and a solar hot water installation had a relatively short payback period. We were aware of photovoltaics and other alternate energy sources, but they all cost too much to be viable.
The gyrations around China are no surprise. Photovoltaics are semi-conductor electronics, with the same sort of economic fundamentals. A bunch of Chinese vendors saw a market in solar and jumped into the ring. Supply far outstripped demand, prices dropped, and some of the Chinese vendors went belly up.
Solyndra was a source of grim amusement, with the big question being why anyone thought a US based photovoltaics manufacturer could compete with Chinese vendors with far lower costs.
Speaking personally, I see the Chinese presence as helping the overall solar market. The biggest roadblock to alternative energy is cost. The energy used will be the cheapest available. Alternative energy never really took off as proponents hoped because fossil fuel based energy was still cheaper than alternatives.
Cheaper solar panels from China mean lower costs for vendors doing such things, and the possibility of greater sales into a broader market. The Chinese can have the razor thin margin commodity manufacturing business making the underlying solar cells. The value is in other areas of the market, taking those raw materials and making useful products,
When we talk about energy systems that don't have a problematic waste stream, why don't we ever hear about Geothermal? Granted, there are some technical hurdles to overcome (e.g. drilling a 5 mile deep hole) but no mysteries (like fusion power has).
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.