SAN JOSE, Calif. – Just a few miles from the shuttered Solyndra plants where 1,100 workers were laid off seven months ago, former presidential candidate General Wesley Clark called for putting the fledgling solar industry at the front of a new U.S. national economic strategy focusing on being a world leader in the production of low cost clean energy.
“This is an industry central to Americas future” but it will require government support beyond 2016 “for the technology to mature and stand on its own feet,” he said, getting a standing ovation from some of the several hundred attendees at the PV America West conference here.
The U.S. solar industry now employs slightly more than 100,000 people, more than twice the level it employed in 2009, thanks to deployments that jumped nearly a gigawatt to 1,889 megawatts last year, said Rhone Resch, the chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The solar industry could employ as many as 250,000 people over the next five years, he added.
Eight utilities plan to invest $2.5 billion in various solar programs, said Julia Hamm, the chief executive of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) which includes about 400 utilities among its members. “We’ve often heard it said utilities hate solar, but that’s not true--utility skepticism has diminished dramatically, but it has not vanished altogether,” she said.
But big challenges loom.
Photovoltaic panel prices plunged as much as 50 percent in the past year according to some reports in the wake of billions of China government subsidies to its manufacturers in the sector starting in 2010. High-profile U.S. panel startup Solyndra got caught in the dynamics, folding and laying off 1,100 people last August.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to issue a ruling as early as today on claims of China dumping solar panels brought by Solarworld, a large German PV maker.
In the wake of Solyndra’s failure, some say its game over for PV panel manufacturing in the U.S. Trade groups such as SEIA and advocates such as Clark continue to promote a role for PV and other solar manufacturing roles in the U.S.
“The energy sector has been seen as declining, but we should make it instead a bigger pie not a smaller pie,” said Clark in his keynote. “We have to talk about a new vision for distributed energy, captured close to where it’s produced and made cheaper,” he said.
“We need an X Prize for solar efficiency and get it into classrooms in America to publicize it,” Clark said, calling for greater academic and industry involvement in solar technology.
“We’re not going to be energy independent in near term on solar, so don’t wrap energy independence and solar together in the near term,” Clarke warned, noting the shift to electric and hybrid cars is “going slowly.”
However, “we are dealing with climate change, we have got to move away from carbon-based fuels, and the center of that program is solar energy,” he said. “That’s the national security argument we need,” he added.
Clark did not directly answer a question of whether or not he would run for president again. “I’ve been there and have a couple T-shirts,” he said.
The solar industry faces other immediate challenges, said Resch of SEIA.
A 30 percent tax credit on solar installations Resch called “the backbone of solar” is under fire by legislators. Some utilities want to cap the amount of solar energy residential users can sell back to them.
In addition, some new smart meters don’t support selling back energy from rooftop solar panels. And the so-called 1603 program supporting use of solar in small installations is set to expire.
“Changes in meters could shut down the entire industry in California, the largest solar market state in the nation,” Resch warned, noting pressure is building in Washington for fundamental tax reforms. “Without the right policy your co could go out of business, he said.
look up Brightsource / ivanpaugh, and at NREL in CSP work.
The key recent enabler / advance is the formulation of lower melting point Molten Nitrate Salts still capable of high temperature operation.
( high temperature capable molten salts transport larger recoverable / operating heat capacity than steam might do otherwise at lower energy density than MS )
The motivation for lower melting point Molten salt formulations is to ease cold start startup - loop heating required to unfreeze the working "fluid" for recirculation through the primary heat transfer pumping loops.
The key point of MS CSP is that it is truly BASELOAD capable solar power, ie closest to utility grade, with predictable reliable power production without ridiculously costly electrical storage of any kind. Add a MS tank, and there you go BASELOAD capable.
The ease of set up is getting better. Westinghouse Solar showed this week a panel with an integrated micro inverter. Just plug the panels in (you can get them at some big box hardware stories) and go. Others will follow.
Well I am no expert on solar, just a casual user but it seems that in some areas solar makes a lot of sense. I am not yet ready to jump in full force with solar just yet. I went to a cabin on a mountaintop the past weekend that had 4 solar panels, batteries and an inverter. The system was used to power high efficiency lighting for the cabin and it worked very well. The ease of use and simple setup was refreshing, the cost was not an issue as the solar panels were donated. This was not a full house but a 200 sq ft primitive cabin at elevation with no other source of electricity (nor TV/Cable/internet/etc..). It was nice having real working lights with no need to light a burning fuel! All that said, if solar is going to go big time, there will need to be a lowering in cost for the generation and better means for storing power for night / cloudy times.
Clarke is chairman of the board of investment firm Rodman & Renshaw, and part of his portfolio is to study alternative renewable energy: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=122722&p=irol-govboard. He makes good points.
I read some comparisons several years ago. One can probably find something more recent with a bit of googling. With PV costs crashing, I suspect that thermal solar is falling quite a bit behind. It does have storage ability, but it has the drawback of requiring as much water as any steam based power generation, which could be significant issue in the places most ideal for solar.
One of the first solar plants to use molten salt was the Solar One in CA which was upgraded in mid 90's with molten salt.
I believe the one with the most storage might be in Spain, which can provide 24/7 power in the summer...
Our entire energy industry is in need of overall (some of it quite literally), if it is to meet the needs of the next century. That will require massive investment to repair/replace/update and to develop the new technologies required. Solar is one part of the equation and, hopefully, the investment and necessary legal framework will be made.
@rick.merritt: Mirrors focus sunlight on a tower with a black absorber. This heats a salt mixture to the melting point, which goes into a large storage tank. The molten salt then heats water to run a standard steam turbine/generator. The main purpose of the salt is to store some of the thermal energy to use when the sun is not shining.
The reason to use salt is it's liquid at atmospheric pressure, so the storage tanks don't have to be pressurized.
Massive investment is immediately needed in phtovoltaic cell research and optimum energy capture and storage mechnism. At the present we are not in a position to supply a large load just with solar enegery at affordable rates. So instead the focus should be on more research and giving subsidies for hybrid power homes, that which use both locally generated solar power apart from the grid. These moves willl gradually reduce the total demand on the grid and in time we would also have more viable solar cell technology for massive deployment.
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