01 June 2010
“A Chicken in Every Pot,” from Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan implied that under his presidency, all Americans would be well fed. Now, 82 years later, it’s time to change that slogan to “A Panel on Every Rooftop.” After all, Americans are huge consumers of everything--including electricity. So why not make it every American’s responsibility to generate at least some of his or her own?
“Although they’re called the “United” states, they are anything but uniform when it comes to solar policies.”
In 2009, the US generated 37% more electricity from the sun than the year before, according to the “US Solar Industry Year in Review,” a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association. This growth was the result of demand in both residential and utility markets, fueled by state and federal policy advances and declining prices. In terms of dollars gained, total solar industry revenue in 2009 in the US reached $4 billion, an increase of 36% over the previous year.
At the same time, carbon emissions decreased in the US by 7%, according to the EIA. The Climate Bill currently being debated in the US Senate calls for a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2010, and an 83% cut by 2050.
While the Climate Bill doesn’t directly promote solar or other forms of alternate energy, one of the cleanest ways to cut carbon emissions is by large-scale implementation of solar. A boost from the government helps.
What’s Happening Now
The US government is certainly trying to stimulate the use of renewable energy. In January of this year, US Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Steven Chu announced that NREL would invest $12 million to help develop solar energy technologies. The Photovoltaic Incubator Program pairs NREL with companies that have early-stage solar technologies to help move it toward commercialization.
One of the companies receiving the incubator award was Semprius of Durham, North Carolina. The $3 million subcontract was awarded to help move the company’s new semiconductor technology, called micro-transfer printing, toward commercialization. The technology prints high-performance semiconductors onto surfaces including glass and flexible plastic. It can be used with inexpensive optics to concentrate the equivalent of 1000 suns onto its high-efficiency micro-cells.
Another DoE program (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) awarded grants to companies doing research and development. 1366 Technologies of Lexington, Massachusetts (an MIT spin-off) was awarded a $4 million ARPA-E grant to advance research on what it calls “Direct Wafer,” which is a kerfless wafering process. The company’s motto is “Solar at the Cost of Coal,” and it hopes be there by 2012.
Lack of United Policy
Money isn’t everything that’s needed. Although they’re called the “United” states, they are anything but uniform when it comes to solar policies. I asked Dave Cavanaugh, Senior Analyst of Pike Research how solar companies who do business in several states keep regulations, incentives and policies straight. He said, in short, “they struggle.” He noted that there’s an ever-changing map, state by state, of the RPS (renewable portfolio standards), incentive requirements, and clean technology regulations. This is especially true with respect to getting solar projects kicked off as evidenced by Cavanaugh’s comment, “when it comes to permitting there has been no effort to make it any easier or uniform from state to state.”
To try to keep the myriad incentives straight, the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council launched the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE). While the site is a handy way of locating state and local programs, its content demonstrates that incentives come in more flavors than you can imagine.
What Needs to Happen
A lot needs to happen in the US as far as solar energy is concerned. For starters, we need to use less energy. It seems that living The American Dream has created one big acquisition disorder. Ironically, the second half of Herbert Hoover’s slogan was “A car in every garage.” Now most Americans have more than one car, and many have even more fuel-consuming “recreational” devices such as motorcycles, motor homes, jet skis, snowmobiles, and so on-- consuming fossil-fuel based energy as if it were renewable. A first positive change would be a change in mindset and habit.
Next, we need to use clean sources of energy. Clearly we need to move away from energy that pollutes by spewing carbon into the air, by fouling the ocean, or through the storage of toxic waste products. The recent coal mine disasters and the oil spill prove our need to increase use of clean energy sources. US Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont stated, following the coal mine and oil spill disasters, that “Our long-term energy security depends on promoting energy efficiency and supporting domestic sources of clean, renewable power such as biomass, solar, and wind energy.”
And finally, simplify requirements. A commonality between states would be a start. Cavanaugh said he would call for the formation of a federal-level committee to look into various permitting procedures on a statewide basis and come up with a guideline for a consistent and efficient permitting process. “The simplest approach would be to use California’s procedure as a common standard.” With about 75% of US solar installations, California has a set of standards that has certainly promoted solar. Cavanaugh said California’s standards could be “streamlined and then recommended to all states.”
He would like to see a federally mandated minimum feed-in tariff (FiT) or at least an update to the Waxman-Markey Bill, “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009,” which sets cap and trade limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted nationally. Cavanaugh would also like to see a federal-level RPS goal.
“With a federally mandated minimum RPS and then a minimum escalation rate, state legislatures will know what minimum renewable power goals they have coming.” He said that he’d add to that a federal mandate that every state must publish a plan for public and solar industry review as to how they’ll meet renewable portfolio standards. And Cavanaugh said he’d also like to see improved financial transactions for renewable energy credits between entities, “so financing becomes easier.”
After changing nasty habits and promoting renewable energy, what is needed for solar to really take off is an improved grid and transmission capability, so all the energy sucked in from the sun can be sent to where it’s needed. A recent NREL study indicated that the power grid can accommodate increases in energy generated by wind and solar, but that utilities will have to increase coordination of operations across a greater geographic area and plan more frequent deliveries that can also be adjusted for wind and solar conditions.
In some areas, transmission lines and the power grid are outdated. While updating is a monumental task, it would put millions of people to work on projects that will ultimately enable the US to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The US government is working toward this goal through the DoE’s grant program intended to stimulate development of smart grid technologies and integrated systems.
“With a change in mindset and personal habits…a panel on every rooftop could become more reality than just the new American dream.”
Waukesha Electric Systems is a transformer manufacturer that received such a grant to develop and manufacture a smaller, more efficient super conducting transformer for electric utilities. Working with fellow grant participants including the University of Houston, SuperPower, Inc., and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Waukesha Electric Systems plans to develop, build, test and install a new super conducting transformer in Southern California Edison’s Smart Grid by the end of 2013.
In 2009 the US ranked fourth in new solar electric capacity with 481 MW, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Right now the states with the highest rebates or tax incentive for solar have the most solar installed. California leads with 220 MW installed. New Jersey is a distant second with 57. With a change in mindset and personal habits, continued government support--including common standards—a panel on every rooftop could become more reality than just the new American dream.
Written by Anne Fischer, Solar Novus Today Managing Editor