Is it boom time ahead (again) for solar panel manufacturing?

Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons
Jon Callas, Flickr Creative Commons

The solar industry is in expansion mode, again. First Solar — the U.S. maker of thin solar panels, which is seen as a bellwether for the industry — said this week that they plan to boost their solar panel production by as much as 46 percent in 2015.

SolarCity, the solar installer founded by Elon Musk’s cousins the Rive brothers, is building its first solar panel factory in New York and expects to roughly double the amount of solar installations to between 920MW to 1,000MW in 2015, company executives said this week during a call with analysts to discuss its third-quarter earnings.

Seems like the boom is back! Or is it?

How solar power spreads among neighbors ‘like a contagion’

solar-contagionAre solar panels a green status symbol?

A new study finds strong linkage between one home’s solar panel and the likelihood another nearby will go green. Known as peer effects, the upshot is simple: “In some sense, it’s the ‘Keeping up with the Jonses’ idea,” said Kenneth Gillingham, a co-author on the study.

Gillingham is an assistant professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. The study, published in The Journal of Economic Geography, could help a range of solar advocates better target their efforts, from utilities and regulators to third-party installers.

“Green envy” is Gillingham’s favorite way of explaining it. Or perhaps, “conspicuous conservation.”

Gas Prices Are Falling, But Solar Energy Is Set to Take Over

520-solar-to-take-off2016 is going to be an incredibly pivotal year for a lot of reasons, and the future of clean, renewable energy in America is just one of them. Why 2016? That’s the year that the current tax credit on solar systems — which is now at 30 percent — is set to expire. If that tax credit is renewed or even improved upon by regulators, it could set solar energy on a path toward becoming the dominant energy source within a few decades. If not, well, it could set back America considerably.

If the tax credit is renewed, the International Energy Agency says that solar power is primed to become America’s top electricity-generating resource by 2050. The IEA, one of the energy industry’s top watchdogs, says that falling equipment costs would allow more people to adopt solar systems and rocket solar energy production above all other resources, including coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear power.

Low Oil Prices Can’t Kill the Solar Energy Boom

520-fool-chartThere’s a common feeling on Wall Street that a drop in oil prices will have a big impact on solar energy companies, especially if prices stay low for long. You can see in the chart below that solar stocks have almost exactly followed the falling price of oil over the last three months.

What’s strange about this trend is that oil has little to nothing to do with the solar energy industry. Solar energy produces electricity, which is dominated by natural gas and coal production throughout most of the world. Those are its natural competitors, not oil that’s turned into gasoline to fuel your car.

How the market gets solar energy wrong
The general assumption in the energy industry is that all energy sources are somehow correlated. For decades natural gas and oil were somewhat correlated, in part because heating oil and natural gas could both be used to heat homes. If the cost of one went down, demand went up, and prices rose again.

Are solar power forecasts too pessimistic?

As Niels Bohr is reported to have said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yet we rely on all kinds of forecasts about all kinds of things to get an idea of what the future will be like. That’s not a bad thing – it’s better to have an informed guess than to have no idea at all – but we must always remember to calibrate our trust in these forecasts properly, and to go back once in a while to see how things actually turned outcompared to the original projection.

A lot of environmentalists get discouraged by gloomy predictions. Oh, in 2050 clean energy will only represent a tiny fraction of the total, they say. Electric cars will stay a small niche… Deforestation will be X hectares per year… Etc. But the reality is that forecasters are only human, and they have limited data and make mistakes (sometimes big ones), especially with things that involve exponential growth, or where a single tipping point can dramatically change things. Humans just aren’t very good at dealing with things that grow exponentially rather than linearly, and we can’t predict turning points very well.

Energy Department Provides $15 Million For Affordable Solar

520-Dept-of-energySupporting the goals of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, the Energy Department today announced $15 million in available funding to help integrate distributed, on-site solar energy systems into the nation’s electrical grid. With more solar power installed in the United States in the last 18 months than in 30 years prior, solar is shattering records. Since President Obama took office, the amount of solar power installed in the U.S. has increased more than thirteen fold – from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2008 to an estimated 15.9 GW today – enough to power the equivalent of 3.2 million average American homes. As more solar comes online, the Energy Department is working to address the challenges of solar power, such as the variability of available sunshine during the day, and developing solutions to better integrate solar photovoltaics (PV) with electric power systems throughout the grid.

To further spur widespread deployment of safe, reliable, and cost effective solar energy for all Americans, this funding is specifically aimed at supporting projects that enable low-cost, flexible and reliable solutions that successfully integrate solar PV power plants and energy storage. The funding opportunity will tackle the challenge of creating cost-effective and reliable distributed PV and energy storage solutions to help overcome the challenges associated with increased amounts of renewables. Eligible projects include solutions that will help revolutionize distributed PV and energy storage through:

Texas lobbying group busted for phony anti-solar campaign

520-texan-businessmanIf you want to see just how low utility companies will stoop to try to turn public opinion against rooftop solar energy, just look to Wisconsin. There, as in other states, utility companies have been pushing to increase households’ fixed monthly energy costs, arguing that rate hikes are needed because of solar “net metering” policies.

As explored in my “Nothing but Net Metering” series, and further explained by David Roberts, the utilities contend that since they have to credit households that produce their own solar, and because those households technically still use the grid, then additional fees should be imposed on everybody to make up for what’s credited to solar.

It’s hard not to see this as a cynical attempt to turn the public against policies like net metering that encourage people to install rooftop solar.

Forget Fracking: Solar Power Actually Has a Bright Future in the US

solar-not-a-nicheThe news: If current trends hold, in just a couple of years, solar power will no longer be a niche market limited to well-off, eco-conscious people: It will become a mainstream method of energy production.

That’s the argument made by a new Deutsche Bank report published this week, which projects that the U.S. will reach solar grid parity in 47 states by 2016, meaning that solar electricity will be just as cheap, or even cheaper, than average electricity-bill prices from conventional energy sources.

The chart below shows how far solar will come out ahead in each state in 2016, assuming a worst-case scenario of lower tax credits. The bars show anticipated cost of solar energy minus average electricity prices. Positive numbers indicate the savings for every kilowatt hour of electricity.

Solar Could Compete With Gas On Price By As Early As 2025

roof-solar-520The price of utility-scale solar power is 59 percent below where analysts thought it would be at this point back in 2010.

That’s the word from a new report out of the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Furthermore, between 2012 and 2013 alone, the price of a solar system your neighbor or your local businesses owner might install on their roof dropped 12 to 15 percent. And depending on where it’s located and the shape of the market, it could fall another 3 to 12 percent by the end of 2014.

Within the United States, the NREL and LBNL research found that the median price for a completed 10-kilowatt-or-less solar system — which is what generally gets put on residential homes and small commercial buildings — hit $4.69 per watt in 2013. For systems quoted in 2012 but expected to be installed in 2013, the median price went down to $3.71 per watt. That’s all compared to $5.30 per watt in 2012, according to work the LBNL did on this same topic last year.

Solar’s tax credit fight could lead to ‘Tomorrow Power & Light’ or ‘World War III’

solar-sunsetA political fight is coming for solar’s crucial federal tax incentive, a fight one key industry leader warned could be “World War III.”

But beyond the foreboding politics, another industry leader said, is the possibility of “Tomorrow Power & Light,” the utility of the future operating a safe and reliable system of affordable integrated central and distributed choices for electricity customers.

In 2016, solar’s federal investment tax credit (ITC) will drop from 30% to 10%. Backed by the current 30% benefit, this year’s solar installations will be 70 times higher than they were in 2006, when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 put the ITC in place. By the end of 2014, there will be nearly 30 times more total solar capacity online than in 2006.

solar myths

12 Misleading Myths About Solar Power

solar mythsSolar energy is a dynamic and continuous energy source that many believe will one day provide most of our energy needs. Unfortunately, conventional energy industries like big oil have giant backers with deep pockets and have successfully leveraged their money to smear renewable technologies.

Their main target seems to be solar. It’s important to know and understand all of the myths that are being spread by these renewable energy opponents so that green energy proponents can combat the nonsense. Here is a list of some of the most prominent myths

Myth: It’s going to cost too much to set up.

Reality: Originally, setting up solar panels was not exactly cheap. However, with investment and global interest, the price has dropped significantly, and continues to drop. It will take further investment and advancement by governments and business to bring the price down even more, however, solar equipment is becoming more affordable and practical for personal use. There is also a cost savings with regards to the energy being displaced by free energy from the sun.

Myth: Solar power is great for small applications, but there is no way it can generate enough power for large scale energy production

Reality: Solar panels are able to create a lot of power. In fact, most people who have solar panels installed on their homes actually send power back into the grid. This means that their panels have created an excess of electricity, which is sold back to the power company for credit. Further advancements are occurring that magnify the intensity of the sun 2,000 fold, capturing the energy with water cooled cells. Not only is the solar energy collected, but the cooling of the hardware captures lost energy, allowing it to be used for other purposes like geothermal or desalination applications. Massive Solar grids are being erected worldwide and are providing a majority of the power to countries like Germany.

Myth: There are not really any true savings with solar panels.

Reality: While it’s true that solar energy equipment has a long way to go before it becomes something incredibly affordable, the same is true for any technological advancement. The personal computer is a great example, early models costing upwards of $5,000–in the 80’s I might add. But those who saw the immense potential of these devices paved the way for an innovative industry that made them cheaper, better and more efficient. The same can be done in the world of solar energy, and is already occurring. There are even companies that will set up all of the solar panels on your home free of charge and then charge you a fee for the energy used–sending the rest to be sold back to the local energy provider. Someone wanting to do it themselves can also save significantly with local, state and federal credits and grants.

Myth: There’s no way you’ll ever produce enough energy for this to pay off.

Reality: Adding solar panels to one’s home increases the value of the home. In fact, according to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, every $1000 that is saved in electric costs because of solar panels, a home’s value raises nearly $20,000. Home energy production could eventually be unnecessary with massive solar utilities providing clean, solar energy via Smart Grids.

Myth: You won’t have the time or energy for the upkeep that is required for solar panels.

Reality: This simply isn’t true. These panels require very little upkeep. Both maintenance and cleaning are minimal, and many solar panels come with great warranties. It is suggested that you hose off the panels once a year, but beyond that, they won’t require upkeep. Commercial solar operations must deal with dust, but on a massive scale it takes no more work than the countless refining processes involved with coal, oil, etc.

Myth: Solar panels won’t work where I live – it’s too cloudy.

Reality: Solar panels work well, even when the sun isn’t out. Since they work off of UV rays, they can still get power on dark days. You may end up pulling some of your power from the grid on cloudy days, but even in very cloudy areas, such as Germany, solar panels have proven themselves many times over.

Myth: My area gets too much snow for solar energy to work effectively.

Reality: Even in very snowy areas, solar energy is much more efficient than nearly any other type of energy. You can get dark panels, which will help in melting snow. If you want to put in a little extra effort, you can clean your panels of snow to keep up the output of energy.

Myth: Solar panels will ruin my roof. It will leak or even collapse due to these panels.

Reality: Solar panels can actually protect the integrity of your roof. Of course, they can only protect where they are, but areas of a roof with solar panels have actually been known to survive a hurricane better than the rest of the roof. They are not too heavy for the roof, and will not cause damage to the structure.

Myth: Solar panels are big and bulky. They will look tacky on your roof.

Reality: Solar panels are all the rage. They look great; neighbors will notice, but in a good way. On top of that, they are fairly slim. They won’t look like something weird is hanging off your roof. When you add solar panels to the roof, you will quickly see that they are just as stylish as they are effective. Regardless, this myth doesn’t have anything to do with the potential of solar energy as a utility.

Myth: Solar panels don’t do that much for the environment. How much will it really change if I install them?

Reality: Each kilowatt of solar energy can offset a significant amount of greenhouse gasses. In fact, up to 16 kilograms of nitrogen oxides, 2,300 kilograms of carbon dioxide, and 9 kilograms of sulfur oxides are negated with each kilowatt of solar energy. The more people who switch to solar, the better it will be for the planet.

Myth: There are no other benefits of solar energy.

Reality: Most states, as well as the federal government, offer incentives to homeowners that upgrade their home with solar panels. You can get a significant tax break due to adding solar panels to your home. This can help offset the original cost of the installation. Green Energy advocates are fighting for greater subsidization of solar energy providers in tune or greater than what is provided for Oil and Gas.

Myth: Solar panels will need to be replaced every few years – they aren’t good for the long haul.

Reality: Early adopters of solar energy may have had to replace their panels every five to ten years. Today, it is much different. Now most solar panels come with a 25 year warranty. These panels are tough and are made for longevity. You shouldn’t need to replace your solar panels often, if at all.

As you can see, Solar Energy is up against some significant opposition willing to do whatever it takes to keep Americans addicted to fossil fuels and continue to rake in massive profits. It will take the entire Alternative Energy community to combat these myths and to restore the truth about solar energy potential. Are there any myths I missed? Please share them in the comments.

Solar Industry Census: Jobs are Way Up

solar-jobsWhile unemployment woes continue to plague the country, and oil and gas drilling jobs along the Gulf Coast are disappearing rapidly, one industry has found a silver lining.

If you didn’t know, the silver lining around a cloud is caused by the sun as it seeps through the edges of a dark cloud. The silver lining in this case is no different. It, too, is caused by the sun.

The Solar Foundation today (Oct. 13) released the first ever solarjob census, which found that jobs in the industry are poised to growanother 26 percent over the next year, which amounts to 24,000 new jobsby August 2011.

In August of this year, the Foundation study discovered that morethan 93,000 people are spending more than 50 percent of their workdaystiling in the solar field at more than 16,000 companies.

“Until now, we had a very unclear picture of the number of peopleemployed in the solar industry,” said Tom Kimbis, chairman of the SolarFoundation.

There have been a lot of estimates and educated guesses made over the years about how many people work in the solar industry, Kimbis said. Researchers have used energy production figures andrevenue dollars to make those estimates. Last year, the Solar EnergyIndustries Association released an estimate that 45,000 people wereworking in the field.

But this census marks the first direct count of solar jobs, Kimbis said.

Researchers worked hard to make contact with employers and find out how many people were working for them.

Researchers received survey responses from 99 percent of theutilities that feature solar as parts of their portfolios, Kimbis said.

The foundation evaluated 31 separate occupations represented in thesolar industry from panel installation, manufacturing, and science tomarketing.

“Among other things, this study shows that investments made throughthe Recovery Act—including the $2.3 billion in tax credits to U.S. based clean energy manufacturing—are already generating positive results,”Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis was quoted in a Solar Foundation press release. “The solar energy sector is an increasingly important sourceof good jobs for Americans.”

The Foundation worked with Cornell University to ensure that thecensus was done accurately and without bias, according to the pressrelease.

“By examining the data from thousands of companies along the entiresupply-chain,” acting executive director of The Solar Foundation, Andrea Luecke, said in the press release, “the study shows that the solarindustry is having a substantial and positive impact on the U.S.economy.”

The study found that more than half of all employers in the solarindustry plan to increase staffing over the next year, the releasestated.

Kimbis said the Foundation looks forward to conducting the censussurvey every year, using this one as a baseline from which to measuregrowth.


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