The Solar Revolution

I work in the electric utility industry and am drawn to issues associated with the industry. Recently, a number of cities and states have declared a goal of a 100% renewable electric supply. Most often, the cornerstone of the renewable movement is solar energy. Some people have declared we are in a solar revolution.

I view the goals of total renewable cities and states as impossible without great advancements in energy production and storage. I wrote about “Renewable Lies” last September. This month I visit solar power more closely.

The price of solar panels has declined exponentially and the cost of solar power has also declined. Solar technology works in producing electricity at least when the sun is shining. Solar advocates point out that enough solar energy hits the earth in a single day to power the planet for a full year. Solar generation can be installed by individuals and scaled up by utilities. Solar power is the hottest, coolest thing in electricity.

However, a recently released book by Varun Sivaram, Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, lays out the case that solar power will need much more policy support and innovation to reach the heights predicted.

Dr. Sivaram holds a Ph.D. in Physics, and is a solar expert and energy advisor.  He favors alternative energy sources and supports solar power, but finds the limitations of solar power must be recognized to truly break through. I haven’t ready his book yet, but I have read three reviews and Dr. Sivaram’s synopsis.

First, silicon technologies dominate the solar generation market today. However, Dr. Sivaram believes silicon technologies have plateaued. Manufacturing techniques are still improving but are leveling off. Solar panel manufacturers spend only 1% of revenue in research and development, a level well below the average for a major, evolving industry. That will have to increase if more efficient solar technologies in organic and quantum dot panels are developed.

Second, Dr. Sivaram states that solar development has leveled at a range of 5% to 10% of total electric usage in Greece, Germany, Italy and Spain, four of the countries with leading solar deployment. He believes additional development in those countries will require additional breakthrough in solar technologies. The leveling of solar deployment will reduce the demand for solar panels and reduce manufacturing efficiency.

Third, Germany and California have experienced operational problems in integrating solar power into the grid, which needs reliable generation sources. He finds intermittent solar power creates additional operational expenses for the grid, even as the cost of solar power falls. Solar-induced grid costs will inhibit additional solar development.

Fourth, Dr. Sivaram notes that lithium-ion batteries are not well-suited for days or weeks of electric storage.. Additional development in battery storage is necessary for efficient electric storage required for wide-scale solar generation deployment.

Fifth, Dr. Sivaram notes, in addition to additional expenses for the electric grid, deployment of localized solar power shifts costs among retail customers. Utilities can’t effectively collect the fixed costs required to maintain reliable generation resources to backup solar generation; collection of those fixed costs are shifted to non-solar customers. The shifting of costs among customers will result in disruption of efficient operation of the electric grid, which is necessary to support the intermittent nature of solar power.

Dr. Sivaram’s conclusion is that marginal improvements in silicon panel technology alone will not be enough to drive a solar revolution. He calls for systemic innovation, including restructuring the entire energy infrastructure, economic markets and energy policies to allow for high penetration of solar generation. He believes that a series of integrated energy breakthroughs are required to move closer to a solar energy future. He believes additional government investment in energy research and additional subsidies for solar generation will be necessary to drive additional solar innovation.

I assume that means Dr. Sivaram believes the 30% federal tax credit for solar generation is not enough. Taxpayers apparently need to kick in even more to chase the promise of a successful solar revolution. I am in agreement with at least one renewable power advocate that we aren’t close yet.

I hope you have a good month.

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