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Profile: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was a participant or observer in the following events:
The US Department of Energy launches the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI)‘s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a facility dedicated to harnessing power from the sun. [US Department of Energy, 2002 ]
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (see 1994) develops a solar cell made from gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide that exceeds 30% conversion efficiency. [US Department of Energy, 2002 ]
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory finishes constructing its Solar Energy Research Facility. It is the most energy-efficient US government building in existence, using both a solar electric system and a passive solar design. [US Department of Energy, 2002 ]
Spectrolab and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory jointly develop a PV solar cell that converts over 32% of the sunlight it collects into energy, a high mark for conversion efficiency. The cell uses three layers of PV materials, and performs best when exposed to sunlight concentrated by a series of lenses and mirrors. [US Department of Energy, 2002 ]
Author and computer scientist Ramez Naam writes a column for Scientific American explaining how “Moore’s Law” is at work in the dropping cost of solar energy generation. The benefits are obvious, he writes: “If humanity could capture one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth—one part in one thousand—we would have access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. At the current rate of energy consumption increase—about 1 percent per year—we will not be using that much energy for another 180 years.” Currently, solar energy only makes up 0.2 percent of the world’s energy production, mostly because the systems to capture and use solar energy are, he says, “expensive and inefficient.” But that is changing for the better. Moore’s Law is an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which he said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled each year. Moore predicted that trend would continue. Later observations codified the “law” to say that the number of transistors per square inch would double approximately every 18 months, in essence doubling the amount of computing power available to a given computer every 18 months. Naam is extrapolating the law to apply to the exponential decrease in the cost of generating solar energy. “If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology,” he writes, “then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone—incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.” Naam takes data generated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977) to note that since 1980, the cost of solar energy has dropped from $22 to $3 per watt. It is an almost perfect exponential drop, on average, trending at an average of a 7 percent drop in the dollars per watt cost per year. 2010 data indicates that the drop in price may be accelerating. Two main factors are driving this price drop: solar manufacturers are continually improving their abilities to reduce the costs of developing solar energy systems, and the efficiency of solar cells is rising dramatically. Laboratory results show solar efficiencies as high as 41 percent, and inexpensive thin-film methods (see 1972 and 1988) are achieving up to 20 percent efficiency in the lab, twice as high as most of the solar systems in use today. Moreover, installation costs are dropping as rapidly as technology costs. Naam writes that the trends indicate that the cost of solar will rival that of average retail conventionally generated electricity, about 12 cents per kilowatt hours, by 2020, or sooner. By 2030, solar electricity will cost half of what it will cost to generate electricity with coal. Naam writes: “Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.” Naam concludes: “The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity. That’s good news for the world.” [Scientific American, 3/16/2011; Investopedia, 2013]
On Fox News’s morning show Fox and Friends, “expert” commentator Shibani Joshi of Fox Business tells viewers that the reason Germany has had so much success with its solar power industry is that it gets a great deal more sunlight than America does. In reality, Germany gets comparatively little sunlight, comparative to Alaska, the US state that gets the least amount of annual direct solar energy. Neither Joshi nor any of the hosts on the show mention Germany’s long governmental support of solar energy development and its backing of green technology research and development. Host Gretchen Carlson and her fellow hosts deride the Obama administration’s “failed” solar subsidies, with Carlson saying: “The United States simply hasn’t figured out how to do solar cheaply and effectively. You look at the country of Germany, it’s working out great for them.” The future of America’s solar industry, Carlson asserts, “is dim.” She then asks Joshi: “What was Germany doing correct? Are they just a smaller country, and that made it more feasible?” Joshi replies: “They’re a smaller country and they’ve got lots of sun. Right? They’ve got a lot more sun than we do.… The problem is it’s a cloudy day and it’s raining, you’re not gonna have it.” A few American states like California get a relatively plentiful amount of sunshine, Joshi says, and experience some success with generating energy from sunlight, “but here on the East Coast, it’s just not going to work.” Slate reporter Will Oremus will later write: “Gosh, why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? Wouldn’t you think that some scientist, somewhere, would have noticed that the East Coast is far less sunny than Central Europe and therefore incapable of producing solar power on the same scale? You would—if it were true.” According to the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977), almost the entire continental US gets more sunlight than the sunniest region of Germany. NREL scientist Sarah Kurtz tells Oremus, “Germany’s solar resource is akin to Alaska’s.” According to an NREL map, the American Southwest is one of the best places in the world to generate solar power, and all of the continental US with the possible exception of the Puget Sound region in Washington state gets far more sunlight than anywhere in Germany. [Slate, 2/7/2013; Media Matters, 2/7/2013] Four days later, Joshi will admit she is wrong. In a post on Fox News’s blog, she will write: “I incorrectly stated that the chief difference between the US and Germany’s success with solar installations had to do with climate differences on a Fox and Friends appearance on Feb. 7. In fact, the difference come down more to subsidies and political priorities and has nothing to with sunshine.” She will then continue to deride solar energy as a minor element in a “divers[ified] energy portfolio,” and will claim that natural gas obtained via “fracking” is a better and more reliable source of energy for the next century. [Fox News, 2/11/2013]
Grist columnist and solar power expert David Roberts lays out three ways the American populace can have relatively unfettered access to solar energy, given the recalcitrance and active opposition of the conventional power utility companies and many lawmakers. Once renewable energy becomes more accessible and widespread, it becomes more of an economic force, creating jobs and generating a revenue stream. “That’s why renewable power remains untouchable in German politics,” he writes, “lots of Germans are directly involved with it.” [Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Leasing - Most American families cannot afford the initial costs of a rooftop solar array, especially when it will take five or 10 years to recoup those costs. Add to that the fact that the homeowner must manage their individual “power plant,” and stay in the home long enough to see financial benefits, and most American families are unwilling to take on such a burden. Roberts suggests that many families may benefit from leasing rooftop solar arrays from companies such as SunRun, SolarCity, or Sungevity. “The solar company effectively becomes a utility,” he writes. “You pay them a monthly fee for the electricity the panels produce.” Most homeowners will either break even on their electricity costs, or save money, in part depending on whether the solar providers in their areas are eligible for state mandates or rebates. Southern California is experiencing quite a boom in solar leasing, with some $1 billion in economic activity being generated since 2007. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently found that solar leasing “has enticed a new demographic to adopt PV [photovoltaic] systems that is more highly correlated to younger, less affluent, and less educated populations than the demographics correlated to purchasing PV systems.” By appealing to less affluent consumers, “third-party PV products are likely increasing total PV demand rather than gaining market share entirely at the expense of existing customer owned PV demand.” SunRun president Lynn Jurich says, “[A]bout 75 percent of Californians switching to solar now choose solar power service” over ownership. Other states featuring solar leasing include Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. SunPower executive Howard Wenger said of his company’s lease program in August 2012: “It’s growing incredibly fast. We’re at a rate of about 1.5 megawatts to 2 megawatts per week.” [Forbes, 8/9/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Community Solar - Some 70 to 80 percent of Americans live in buildings unsuitable for rooftop solar panel arrays. One alternative they have is to form communities of solar power users. Together, they can lease or buy solar arrays. Some power utilities own or operate solar power projects that ratepayers can join. Other people are forming their own communities, either in a business or non-profit enterprise. [Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 5/1/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Solar Power Purchasing Agreements - Solar power purchasing agreements (PPAs) are similar to leases, where individuals buy power from third-party owners and operators of solar arrays. One large organization investing in PPAs is the US military, which is working with SolarCity to lease solar arrays for 120,000 military residences in California and Colorado. Some states have laws making it difficult or downright impossible for PPAs to exist. [Los Angeles Times, 7/17/2012; Environmental Protection Agency, 10/16/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
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