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US Solar Industry

Project: US Solar Industry
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An ancient Roman bathhouse (thermae). The Baths of Diocletian could hold up to 3,000 bathers.An ancient Roman bathhouse (thermae). The Baths of Diocletian could hold up to 3,000 bathers. [Source: Crystalinks (.com)]Roman bathhouses use the sun to warm the chambers. In many areas such as Zippori, an ancient Roman city in what is now Israel, the sunlight is usually let in through south-facing windows. By the 6th century, sunrooms in houses and public buildings are so commonplace that the Justinian Code creates “sun rights” to ensure the citizens’ right to access sunlight. (Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology 6/26/1998; US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

A portion of an Anasazi cliff village in Manitou Springs, Colorado.A portion of an Anasazi cliff village in Manitou Springs, Colorado. [Source: Examiner (.com)]The Anasazi, the ancient Native American tribe that predated the Pueblo, live in south-facing cliff dwellings that capture the winter sun and heat their homes. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure builds the world’s first solar collector. It is later used by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his South Africa expedition in the 1830s. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Robert Stirling applies for a patent for his “Economiser” at the Chancery in Edinburgh, Scotland. Stirling, a minister in the Church of England, is an amateur scientist and inventor. His “Economiser” is a “heat engine” that uses the sun’s thermal energy to produce small amounts of power. Lord Kelvin later uses one of Stirling’s working models to demonstrate the value of solar power in his university classes. The “Economiser” is later used as part of the design of the “Dish/Stirling System,” a solar thermal electric technology that concentrates solar energy to produce power. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

French scientist Edmond Becquerel, 19 years old, discovers the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolytic cell made up of two metal electrodes placed in an electricity-conducting solution. Becquerel’s experiment proves that heightened amounts of electricity can be generated when the cell is exposed to sunlight. He coins the term “photovoltaic effect” to describe his finding. Basically, the photovoltaic effect (PV) occurs when the energy from photons strikes a semiconducting material such as silicon or platinun, and transfers its energy to an atom of the semiconducting material. The energized electron then escapes its bond and generates an electric current. The “gap” created by the escaped electron works with the electron to create the current. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Mr. Solar 2012)

French mathematician August Mouchet conceives the solar-power steam engine. Mouchet and his assistant Abel Pifre build the world’s first true solar-powered engines and use them for a number of applications. The Mouchet engine is the predecessor of modern parabolic dish collectors. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Scientist Willoughby Smith discovers the photoconductivity of selenium. Photoconductivity can be defined as an optical and electrical phenomenon in which a material becomes more electrically conductive due to the absorption of electromagnetic radiation such as visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared light, or gamma radiation. Three years later, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discover that selenium produces electricity when exposed to light. The cells constructed by the two scientists do not convert enough sunlight to power electrical equipment, but they do prove that a solid material can change light into electricity without heat or moving parts. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Allison June Barlow Chaney 2011)

Samuel P. Langley invents the bolometer. His device measures light from starlight and from the sun’s rays. It is constructed of a fine wire connected to an electric circuit. When starlight or sunlight falls on the wire, the wire becomes slightly warmer, increasing the electrical resistance of the wire. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

American inventor Charles Fritts describes the first solar cells made from selenium wafers. Fritts hopes that his cells might compete with the coal-fired power plants of Thomas Edison, but Fritts’s cells operate at less than one percent efficiency, far below the threshold for practical applicability. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; American Physical Society 2013)

German scientist Heinrich Hertz discovers that ultraviolet light alters the lowest voltage capable of causing a spark to jump between two metal electrodes. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Inventor Clarence Kemp of Baltimore patents the first commercial solar water heater. Kemp, who sells cutting-edge home heating equipment, combines the older practice of exposing metal tanks to sunlight with the scientific principle of the “hot box” (see September 27, 1816), thus increasing the tanks’ capability of collecting and retaining heat. He calls his invention the “Climax.” He first markets it to Eastern “gentlemen” whose wives have gone on holiday for the summer, leaving them to their own devices. Kemp sells his heaters by claiming that they will reduce the effort needed to perform housekeeping duties, especially for men unaccustomed to lighting the gas furnace or stove to heat water. Later, Kemp will find a brisk market for his Climax heaters in warmer states such as California. By 1897, a third of the households in Pasadena will use the Climax to heat water in their homes. (California Solar Center 2001; US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Physicist Albert Einstein publishes a paper on the photoelectric effect. Unfortunately for the paper, another paper he publishes, on the theory of relativity, draws far more attention. In 1921, he will win the Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Despite the initial success of the “Climax” solar water heater (see 1891), consumers are dissatisfied with a major drawback of the heater: its inability to keep the water it heats hot for more than a few hours. Inventor William J. Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Company separates the solar heater into two components: a heating element exposed to the sun and an insulated storage unit kept inside the home. Bailey’s invention allows families to have solar-heated water day and night, and even into the next morning. The device keeps water in narrow pipes instead of a large tank, allowing the water to retain its heat longer and for less water needing to be exposed to the sun at any given time. Bailey calls his invention the Day and Night, and by 1918 sells over 4,000 of the heaters. (California Solar Center 2001; US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Scientist Robert Millikan provides experimental proof of the photoelectric effect. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

By the 1930s, the solar water heater industry is essentially killed off in California by discoveries of huge natural gas reserves in the Los Angeles basin. William Bailey, who has grown rich selling his solar-powered water heaters (see 1909-1918), adapts his design for a thermostatically-controlled gas water heater. His Day and Night Solar Water Heater does quite well in Florida, where a building boom has brought in an influx of new residents, many of whom have to pay high rates for hot water. Florida’s semi-tropical climate and its housing boom creates an excellent selling environment for Bailey’s “hybrid” water heater. By 1941, over half of Florida residents heat their water with solar or solar-gas heaters. However, declining energy rates after World War II combined with an aggressive effort by Florida Power and Light to increase electrical consumption by offering electric water heaters at bargain prices brings the state’s solar water heater industry to its knees. (California Solar Center 2001)

In a conversation with fellow inventors and entrepreneurs Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, Thomas Edison says of renewable energy sources: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind, and tide.… I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” (US History 2013; About Thomas Edison 8/19/2013)

Semiconductor researcher Russell Shoemaker Ohl of Bell Laboratories is poring over silicon samples, one of which has a crack in the middle. Electrical current flows through the cracked sample when exposed to light. The crack, likely formed when the sample was made, actually marks the boundary between regions containing different levels of impurities, so one side is positively “doped” and the other negatively doped. Ohl has inadvertently created a “p-n junction,” the basis of a solar cell. When an excess positive charge builds up on one side of the p-n barrier, and a similar excess charge builds up on the other, negatively charged side, an electric field is created. The cell can be hooked up into a circuit, and incoming photos striking the cell can “kick” electrons loose and start a current flowing. Ohl patents the solar cell, which operates at about one percent efficiency. (American Physical Society 2013)

In the United States, scarce energy due to the war effort produces a high demand for passive-solar buildings. The Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company publishes a book called Your Solar House, profiling 49 of the nation’s best-known solar architects. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Bell Laboratories scientists Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson develop the silicon photovoltaic cell, launching the US’s photovoltaic technology industry. The PV cell is the first to convert enough solar energy to run everyday electrical equipment. Chapin had been working on magnetic materials at Bell Labs, and wanted to develop a source of power for telephone systems in remote humid locations, where dry cell batteries degraded rapidly. Chapin determined that solar energy was the most promising of the alternative energy sources available, but found the existing selenium solar cells (see 1883 and 1940) far too inefficient. Fuller and Pearson were working together to control the properties of semiconductors by introducing impurities. When the two introduce gallium and lithium to a piece of silicon, they create a p-n junction, allowing electrical current to be generated. The silicon cell produces far more electricity than they had anticipated. Pearson informed Chapin to concentrate on silicon cells, and the three work together to improve the properties of the silicon cells. Eventually, the three use a silicon cell with boron and arsenic impurities to create a satisfactory solar cell, and link several together to form what they call a “solar battery.” Their battery produces energy at about a six percent efficiency rating. Bell publicly demonstrates the new battery by using it to power a toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter. The New York Times writes that the silicon solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams—the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” Bell Labs later produces a PV cell that achieves 11% efficiency. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; American Physical Society 2013)

Western Electric begins selling commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic (PV) technologies (see 1954). Some successful products include PV-powered dollar bill changers and devices that decode computer punch cards and tape. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Architect Frank Bridgers and his partner, mechanical engineer Don Paxton, design and oversee the construction of the Bridgers-Paxton Building, the world’s first commercial office building using solar water heating and passive-solar design. The building, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, still exists as of 2013, though it is no longer functional. It will be commemorated in the National Historic Register. Life magazine devotes a multi-page spread to the building in a December 1956 issue, calling it an odd-looking office building that “has one wall sheathed in glass and tilted to face the sun.” That south-facing wall is slanted 30 degrees to best capture the intense New Mexico sunlight, the “passive solar” aspect of the design. The building also employs active mechanical components that comprise a five-phase system controlled by a set of pneumatic controls. The building will be featured in dozens of consumer and engineering magazines throughout the world. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Earth Alert! 2006)

US Signal Corps Laboratories scientist William Cherry discusses developing photovoltaic (PV) cells (see 1954) for proposed orbiting Earth satellites with RCA Labs’ Paul Rappaport and Joseph Loferski. Two years later, the Signal Corps Laboratories successfully fabricates a new silicon PV cell more resistant to radiation and thusly more useful for space-based energy generation. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The US’s Vanguard I space satellite uses a small solar array, generating less than one watt, to power its radios. Later that same year, the Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 satellites all use PV-powered systems (see 1956-1958) to power its systems. While commercial uses for solar energy in the United States (see 1955) is less than successful during this period, silicon solar cells become a mainstay of satellites and subsequent space exploration vehicles. In 1962, Bell Telephone Laboratories launches the first telecommunications satellite, Telstar. This satellite generates 14 watts of electricity via its PV cells. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum 2013)

The first large commercial production of selenium and silicon PV cells (see 1955) begins at Silicon Sensors, Inc. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Japan installs a 242-watt, photovoltaic array on a lighthouse. It is at the time the world’s largest array. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

NASA begins the Nimbus satellite program by launching the first Nimbus satellite, powered by a 470-watt PV array. The Nimbus satellites are primarily for research into more complex satellite systems, and for collecting atmospheric data. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; National Space Science Data Center 12/3/2009)

Dr. Peter Glaser invents and patents the first design of a satellite solar power station (SPS). Microwave power transmission pioneer William C. Brown begins working with Glaser. The SPS launches an entirely new aspect of the solar industry. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Space Solar Power Institute 2013; Solar Power World 5/2013)

NASA launches its Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO), powered by a 1-kilowatt PV array. The satellite platform provides astronomical data in the ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths that is normally filtered out by Earth’s atmosphere. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Odeilo Solar Furnace.Odeilo Solar Furnace. [Source: Gizmodo]France builds the Odeilo Solar Furnace, located in the Pyrenees Mountains. It has an eight-story stack of some 10,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight into a large concave hemisphere to focus the energy—so-called “lensing technology.” Temperatures in the hemisphere can reach up to 6,300°F. The energy generates electricity via a steam turbine, and is later used for making hydrogen fuel, testing reentry materials for space vehicles, and performing high-temperature metallurgic experiments. Its extraordinary heat generation allows for the production of carbon nanotubes and zinc nanoparticles via solar induced sublimation. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; Tarantola 7/26/2011)

Dr. Elliot Berman, with assistance from scientists with the Exxon Corporation, designs a far less costly solar cell than has been previously available, lowering the price of electricity generated by the cell from $100/watt to $20/watt. Berman’s cell soon powers navigation warning lights and horns on offshore gas and oil rigs, lighthouses, railroad crossings, and a number of domestic solar applications. Solar energy becomes more popular in remote locations far away from electricity provided by grid-based utilities. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

France installs a cadmium sulfide (CdS) photovoltaic system to operate an educational television station at a village school in Niger. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The University of Delaware establishes the Institute of Energy Conversion, dedicated to researching and developing thin-film PV and solar thermal energy production systems. It is the first laboratory of its kind. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The Greek navy recreates a legendary feat by the Greek scientist Archimedes, who is said to have used bronze shields to focus sunlight and set fire to wooden ships belonging to the Roman navy. Archimedes’s action took place around 212 B.C. The Greek navy recreates the experiment and sets fire to a wooden boat at a distance of 50 meters. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The University of Delaware, home to the world’s first solar energy research institute (see 1972), builds a PV-powered residence called “Solar One.” The system is a PV/thermal hybrid, with roof-integrated arrays having surplus power fed through a special meter during the day, and power purchased from the local utility at hight. The arrays also act as flat-plate thermal collectors, with fans blowing the warm air from over the array to phase-change heat-storage bins. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

NASA’s Lewis Research Center begins installing 83 PV power systems in buildings on every continent except Australia. The systems power, among other things, vaccine refrigeration utilities, room lighting, medical clinic lighting, telecommunications, water pumping, grain milling, and classroom television. The project is completed in 1995, the delay being caused by a hiatus between 1985 and 1992. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

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 pdf file)

A 3.5 kilowatt PV system installed on Arizona’s Papago Indian Reservation is launched by NASA’s Lewis Research Center. The system provides water pumping and residential electricity in 15 homes. In 1983, the system will be revamped after the community received grid-powered electricity. It will then be revamped to pump water from a community well. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Paul MacCready builds the first solar-powered aircraft, which he calls the Solar Challenger. To prove its viability, he flies it from France to England across the English Channel. The aircraft is powered by over 16,000 solar cells mounted on its wings, which produce 3,000 watts of power. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Hisperia, California launches the first PV megawatt-scale power station in existence. The station, developed by ARCO Solar, produces 1 megawatt of energy. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The US Department of Energy (DOE), working with an industry consortium, puts into operation “Solar One,” a ten-megawatt central-receiver demonstration project in California. The project proves the feasibility of power-tower systems, a solar-thermal power generating system. The system runs until 1988, dispatching electricity 96 percent of the time. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The German auto manufacturer Volkswagen begins testing solar-power arrays mounted on the roof of its Dasher station wagons. The system powers the car’s ignition system. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Australian Hans Tholstrup drives the world’s first solar-powered car, named the “Quiet Achiever,” along the 2,800 mile stretch between Sydney and Perth in 20 days, ten days faster than the first gasoline-powered car to make the same run. Tholstrup later founds the “World Solar Challenge” in Australia, considered the world championship of solar car racing. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Solar Design Associates builds and operates a free-standing solar-powered home in New York’s Hudson River Valley. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

A new six-megawatt solar electricity substation in central California, operated by ARCO Solar, generates enough power for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to power up to 2,500 homes. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The world’s largest solar-thermal facility opens in Kramer Junction, California. The solar field uses rows of mirrors that concentrate solar energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid. That fluid produces steam, which in turn powers a conventional turbine to produce electricity. The Kramer Junction facility is the largest of nine such plants built in the 1980s. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Dr. Alvin Marks patents two solar power technologies: Lepcon and Lumeloid. Lepcon consists of glass panels covered with a large array of millions of aluminum or copper strips, each less than a micron wide. As sunlight hits the metal strips, the energy in the light is transferred to electrons in the metal, which escape at one end in the form of electricity. Lumeloid uses a similar approach but substitutes less expensive sheets of filmed plastic for the glass panels and covers the plastic with conductive polymers. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Pacific Gas and Electric begins operating the first grid-supported PV solar electricity generation system in Kerman, California. The system produces 500 kilowats of power. This “distributed system” allows for greater system reliability and peak-shaving capability. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

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 pdf file)

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 pdf file)

The world’s most advanced solar-powered airplane, the icare 2, flies over Germany. The aircraft was designed and constructed by a team from the University of Stuttgart composed of members of seven departments in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Its first flight was conducted entirely on solar-generated power, without using supplemental battery power. Its wings and tail section are covered in over 3,000 highly efficient solar cells. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file; icare 2 2011)

The US Department of Energy, in conjuction with a consortium of industry representatives, launches its “Solar Two,” an upgrade of its Solar One solar power project in Daggett, California (see 1982). The facility is in operation through 1999. It demonstrates how solar energy can be stored efficiently and economically to be used during times when the sun is not shining. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Scientist Subhendu Guha leads the invention of flexible solar shingles, a roofing material designed to convert sunlight to electricity. The solar shingles replace the usual asphalt shingles, and are connected to the utility grid, feeding the collected power through an inverter and producing electricity for the customer. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

“Pathfinder,” a remote-controlled, solar-powered aircraft, sets an altitude record of 80,000 feet on its 39th consecutive flight in Monrovia, California. The record is for highest altitude achieved by a propeller-driven aircraft. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

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 pdf file)

4 Times Square, the tallest skyscraper built in New York City during the 1990s, is completed. The building incorporates a record-breaking amount of energy-efficient building techniques, which include an array of PV panels on the 37th through 43rd floors that produce power from sunlight. The array uses a “photovoltaic skin” that replaces the usual glass cladding materials. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Sandia National Laboratories develops a new inverter for solar electric systems that will increase the safety of the systems during a power outage. Inverters convert the direct current (DC) electrical output from solar systems into alternating current (AC), the standard current for household wiring and for the power lines that supply electricity to homes. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Astronauts begin installing solar panels on the International Space Station, to form what will be the largest solar power array deployed in space. Each “wing” of the array consists of 32,800 solar cells. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

First Solar of Perrysburg, Ohio begins manufacturing photovoltaic solar panels, producing enough panels to generate 100 megawats of power per year. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

A Morrison, Colorado family installs a 12-kilowatt solar electrical system for its home, the largest residential installation in the US to be registered with the Department of Energy’s “Million Solar Roofs” program. The system provides most of the electricity for the 6,000-square foot home. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Patrick Mazza, the research director for advocacy and research organization Climate Solutions, writes a guest column for the online environmental magazine Grist. Mazza says that the US needs to launch a huge, systematic push for clean energy in order to mitigate the effects of global warming. The clean energy industry, he writes, is at “the takeoff point,” with wind and solar the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, and clean energy costs “rapidly curving down toward competitiveness with fossil fuels.” Fuel cells that provide clean energy for buildings and new-generation electric and hybrid vehicles are ready to appear on the market. Shell Oil planners have predicted that renewable energy sources will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels by 2020, and will produce half the world’s energy by 2050, if public and private initiatives make this happen. President Clinton recently told an audience: “I believe there will be a complete revolution in energy technology, which will enable us to turn around global warming. I just hope it happens in time to avoid melting the polar ice cap, or some other disastrous thing.” As global temperatures continue to spike, time, Mazza writes, “is of the essence.” Clinton’s science adviser John Holdren says, “We are running out of time for a smooth transition to a sustainable energy future.” Global warming and the subsequent climate change are established scientific facts, Mazza writes, with the potential for catastrophic effects on the planet and on human civilization. Using renewable, clean energy sources can mitigate the impending catastrophe by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere. “Though the task is imposing, the clean energy revolution is coming along just in time, promising genuine climate solutions as well as phenomenal economic opportunities,” Mazza concludes. “Energy generated with clean sources such as sun, wind, and hydrogen at millions of points, all linked by information technology that manages both power production and consumption for peak efficiency—this is the picture of an emerging energy web that will parallel the Internet and in many ways be tied to it. It represents the most significant energy transformation since Edison set up the first power plant over a century ago. We are at the portal of the clean energy revolution. Whether it takes off fast enough to re-stabilize the climate is an issue of global urgency, with long-term, irreversible implications. Required are gutsy entrepreneurs, visionary business leaders, and public leadership, not only at the federal level, but also from enlightened states and cities moving to protect the planet and seize a significant economic opportunity at the same time.” (Mazza 3/23/2000)

Denis Hayes, the chairman of the Earth Day Network and the head of the Bullitt Foundation, writes of how the US government could encourage the expansion of solar power as a means to combat global warming. The federal government could sink significant funds into buying “wind turbines, biofuels, fuel cells, hydrogen, hypercars, and other elements of a solar future,” he writes. Doing so “will accelerate the speed at which such products become affordable for the rest of us. We typically think in terms of federal procurement, but state and local governments can play an important role too.” The most obvious candidate for federal purchasing is solar cells, Hayes writes. “Lowering the cost of solar cells would provide extraordinary public benefits. Solar cells make electricity, but they consume no fuel, produce no pollution, generate no radioactive waste, have long lifetimes, contain no moving parts, and require little maintenance. They can be fashioned mostly from silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Solar cells produce zero carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, solar cells are not yet cheap enough to compete with heavily subsidized fossil fuels. Although the price of solar cells already has fallen about 40-fold, this technology remains roughly three times too expensive to achieve skyrocketing growth as a power source in the United States. For a quarter-century, affordable solar cells have been the environmental brass ring, lying just outside the grasp of those who favor green power. Governmental procurement could lower their price to the point where they will take off on their own in the private sector. A comparison of the experiences of computer chips and solar cells vividly illustrates the value of government procurement in bringing new products to market.” If the government were to invest in the production of solar cells, their production price would drop precipitously as mass-production procedures would be instituted. Hayes gives the example of the integrated circuit, which was viewed as an expensive oddity until the Defense Department began buying it in bulk. The price of the circuits dropped dramatically, and private market opportunities began presenting themselves. Hayes notes, “In just six years, the price of integrated circuits plummeted 95 percent and an enormous commercial market developed.” A similar cost-production curve was followed by CPUs, which at first were too expensive to use, but when Intel and other firms achieved the ability to make them in bulk, their price dropped. As a result, integrated circuits and CPUs drove the information revolution. The same could happen with solar cells, Hayes argues. Hayes concludes that if the government sinks a significant amount of money into buying solar cells—he suggests $5 billion over the next four years—“the impact on the world will be revolutionary.” (Hayes 5/8/2000)

A firm named TerraSun develops a method of using holographic film to concentrate sunlight upon solar cells. Instead of using the usual Fresnel lenses or mirrors to concentrate light, the TerraSun design bases its efficiency on the contention that holographic film allows the more selective use of sunlight, allowing light not being used for power production to pass through the transparent modules. The holographic film transfer method is well suited for use in skylights. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The Powerlight Corporation installs the US’s largest rooftop solar power system, at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California. It is the fourth largest solar electric system in the world. It reduces the jail’s use of conventionally generated electricity by some 30 percent, and provides energy to the jail via three acres of solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) panels. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Japan’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA) announces plans to develop a satellite-based solar power system that will beam energy back to Earth via a laser. The laser will “feed” the collected energy to an airship cruising 12 miles above the ground, which would then transmit the energy to a ground-based station. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The Home Depot in San Diego begins selling solar residential power systems in three of its stores. In 2002, the franchise will expand sales to 61 stores nationwide. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

A BP gas station in Indianapolis is outfitted with a solar-electric canopy built by BP Solar. The station is the first of a series of “BP Connect” stores, and is intended to serve as a model for all new or refurbished BP stores. The canopy uses translucent PV modules made of thin films of silicon on glass, the “PowerView Semi-Transparent Photovoltaic Module,” and is designed to double both as a power generation system and as a roof or a window. BP will incorporate the system into some 150 stations by 2001, having the modules replace conventional glass in walls, canopies, atriums, entrances, and facades in commercial and residential architecture. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The world’s largest hybrid power generating system comes online in Hawaii, combining wind and solar power production. The plant, built by PowerLight Corporation, generates more electricity from the sun than it does from wind. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The Helios, NASA’s solar-powered aircraft, sets an altitude record for non-rocket powered aircraft at almost 97,000 feet, or 18 miles in the air. The Helios flies mostly in Hawaii. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Richland, Washington, brings the largest solar power facility in the Northwest, the White Bluffs Solar Station, online. The facility generates almost 39 kilowatts of electricity. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

ATS Automation Tooling Systems of Canada begins marketing its Spheral Solar technology for producing solar cells. The ATS cells use tiny silicon beads bonded between two sheets of aluminum foil. The cells are much lower in cost than multicrystalline silicon solar cells. The technology was invented by Texas Instruments in the early 1990s, but that firm did not follow up on initial research. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

Union Pacific Railroad installs 350 blue-signal rail yard lanterns, featuring energy saving light-emitting diode (LED) technology with solar cells, at its North Platt, Nebraska, rail yard, the largest rail yard in the United States. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

The “Pathfinder Plus,” a solar-powered, remotely piloted aircraft upgraded from a previous version (see August 6, 1998), flies two successful test runs. The first demonstrates its use as a high-altitude platform for telecommunications and the second shows its ability as an aerial imaging system for coffee growers. The Pathfinder is capable of staying aloft for weeks or even months. Its wings are covered in solar arrays that power most of the craft’s electric motors, avionics, communications, and other electronic systems, and it has a battery-powered backup system. (US Department of Energy 2002 pdf file)

North Carolina implements a new program, “NC Greenpower,” that for the first time allows state residents to buy their electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biomass. Customers would pay between 2.5 cents and 4 cents per kilowatt-hour extra for the so-called “green” power. (Grist Magazine 1/29/2003)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) invests $90 billion in clean energy projects for the next 10 years via loan guarantees, tax incentives, and grants. $38 billion of this is government spending and $20 billion is tax incentives. Symbolically, President Obama signs the bill into law at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he takes a tour of the museum’s solar panel installation. He says he hopes the bill will inspire Americans to get involved in “green” energy the same way that President Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon inspired Americans in the 1960s. “I hope this investment will ignite our imagination once more in science, medicine, energy and make our economy stronger, our nation more secure, and our planet safer for our children,” Obama says before signing the bill. The bill includes:
bullet A three-year extension to the tax credit for wind, which would have expired at the end of this year, and an extension until the end of 2013 for geothermal and biomass renewable-energy projects. The credit has been increased to 30 percent of the investment.
bullet $4.5 billion in direct spending to modernize the electricity grid with smart-grid technologies.
bullet $6.3 billion in state energy-efficient and clean-energy grants, and $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient.
bullet $6 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy systems, biofuel projects, and electric-power transmission facilities.
bullet $2 billion in loans to manufacture advanced batteries and components for applications such as plug-in electric cars.
bullet $5 billion to weatherize homes of up to 1 million low-income people.
bullet $3.4 billion appropriated to the Department of Energy for fossil energy research and development, such as storing carbon dioxide underground at coal power plants.
bullet A tax credit of between $2,500 and $5,000 for purchase of plug-in electric vehicles, available for the first 200,000 placed into service.
Most companies in the green-tech field hail the new focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy in the bill, contrasting it with the Bush administration’s support for fossil fuel energy production and its disdain for clean energy programs. Investors and analysts say the new law is a step towards a comprehensive energy policy based on sustained commitment to renewable energy and efficiency. Michael Liebriech of New Energy Finance says: “For years, US policymakers’ support for clean energy has been uneven. No longer… the US will have a great chance to be the growth engine for our industry over the next several years.” The spending should have an almost-immediate impact, especially in areas such as smart grid technology and energy efficiency, says venture capitalist Dennis Costello. However, even this influx of government funding does not solve all the financial problems facing energy technology firms. The recession continues to grip the economy, he notes, damping demand and making financing of new projects difficult. “It’s kind of refreshing to see at least beginnings of a real energy policy, some sort of unified approach to our energy problems,” he says. “But it isn’t going to solve our energy problems. There are a lot of countervailing factors to give pause to being over-exuberant on the future of energy sector and clean tech.” (LaMonica 2/17/2009; Adam Johnston 7/2013)

An opinion column posted in Yale Environment 360, a publication by Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, calls for the US to “dramatically accelerate the development of clean energy technology.” Authors Mark Muro, a fellow of the Brookings Institution, and Teryn Norris, a project director at the Breakthrough Institute, echo the words of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, who has called for “Nobel-level” breakthroughs and a “second industrial revolution” in clean energy technology to overcome what they term “the world’s interlinked energy and climate challenges.” Muro and Norris write: “To renew the US economy, respond to global climate change, foster the nation’s energy security, and help provide the energy necessary to sustainably power global development, America must transform its outdated energy policy. Innovation and its commercialization must move to the center of energy system reform. The nation must move urgently to develop and harness a portfolio of clean energy sources that are affordable enough to deploy on a mass scale throughout the US and the world. In short, we must make clean energy cheap.” Muro and Norris propose the creation of a series of “renewable energy research hubs,” also called “energy discovery-innovation institutes,” or e-DIIs, funded with a combination of federal, state, university, and private funds. These e-DIIs would, they write, “take the lead in accelerating the development of reasonably priced alternative energy technologies and bringing them to the marketplace.” E-DIIs in different regions would focus on different technologies, they write. Institutes in the Southwest might focus on solar technologies, while institutes in the Great Lakes might focus on advanced battery technologies or hydrogen fuel cells, and institutes in the Great Plains might work on developing sustainable sources of biofuels. Muro and Norris envision successful institutes garnering as much as $6 billion a year in funding, while producing breakthroughs in a variety of renewable energy technologies. By the 2040s, global energy demands are expected to triple from current energy needs, while global greenhouse gases must be reduced by up to 85 percent to avert what the authors call “disruptive climate change.” Nations emerging into the community of developed nations, such as China, India, and Brazil, will lead the demand for additional energy, and will turn to increased use of fossil fuels if cheap and viable renewable energy platforms are not readily available to them. Muro and Norris write: “[I]n the absence of similarly affordable and large-scale clean energy sources, the nations of the developing world will turn to coal and other fossil fuels to power their development, just as we in the United States have done. And that would virtually assure massive climatic destabilization, regardless of what occurs in the developed nations of the world.” Market-based solutions such as carbon taxes and cap-and-tax policies do not do enough to spur renewable energy development, the authors contend. They conclude: “In important ways, the energy innovation institute concept represents a contemporary adaptation of the research paradigm created through the land-grant acts passed by Congress in the 19th century. Then, federal investments established a network of university-based agricultural and engineering experiment stations, augmented by extension services capable of interacting directly with the marketplace. That program was instrumental in developing and deploying the technologies necessary to build a modern industrial nation for the 20th century, while stimulating local economic growth. Today, the US needs a similarly bold campaign to enlist America’s universities, laboratories, and companies in solving one of the most complex and important problems—the transition to a clean-energy economy—that the nation has ever faced.” (Yale Environment 360 4/30/2009; Norris 4/30/2009)

The Australian government announces it will invest $4.5 billion ($3.4 billion in US dollars) in developing the infrastructure necessary to generate energy from solar and wind power, and to reduce carbon emissions. It will also invest in low-emission coal technologies and in large-scale solar electricity generation projects. $465 million goes to a new governmental organization, “Renewables Australia,” intended to lead development in renewable energy research, development, and deployment. The investment plans go against years of Australian governmental policy that forbid spending funds on building clean energy infrastructure. (Norris 5/18/2009)

The federal government sets a fuel efficiency standard of 35 miles per gallon or more for all cars and trucks sold in the US by 2016. The rationale is that raising the fuel efficiency standards will increase fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. The measure is projected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil between 2012 and 2016, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 900 million metric tons. The measure goes into effect in 2012. President Obama says: “In the past, an agreement such as this would have been considered impossible. That is why this announcement is so important, for it represents not only a change in policy in Washington, but the harbinger of a change in the way business is done in Washington. As a result of this agreement, we will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold in the next five years. And at a time of historic crisis in our auto industry, this rule provides the clear certainty that will allow these companies to plan for a future in which they are building the cars of the 21st century.” The policy was developed in a collaboration between the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nation’s major auto manufacturers, the United Auto Workers, environmental organizations, the State of California, and other state governments. EPA head Lisa P. Jackson says: “The president brought all stakeholders to the table and came up with a plan to help the auto industry, safeguard consumers, and protect human health and the environment for all Americans. A supposedly ‘unsolvable’ problem was solved by unprecedented partnerships. As a result, we will keep Americans healthier, cut tons of pollution from the air we breathe, and make a lasting down payment on cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.” Carol Browner, Obama’s assistant for energy and climate change, says: “A clear and uniform national policy is not only good news for consumers who will save money at the pump, but this policy is also good news for the auto industry which will no longer be subject to a costly patchwork of differing rules and regulations. This an incredible step forward for our country and another way for Americans to become more energy independent and reduce air pollution.” Daniel Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign, an organization which for two decades has advocated tougher mileage and emissions standards, says: “This is a very big deal. This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” The measure is based in part on a 2007 application by California to put its emissions standards in effect, an application rejected by the Bush administration. The measure complements fuel efficiency guidelines set by the Department of Energy in January 2009. (White House 5/19/2009; Broder 5/19/2009; Adam Johnston 7/2013)

An image of the proposed Co Op Canyon, inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians.An image of the proposed Co Op Canyon, inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians. [Source: InHabit]The Los Angeles design firm Standard submits a proposal for a fully sustainable, solar-powered arcology for the Re:Vision Dallas design challenge. The proposal, Co Op Canyon, is inspired by the cliffside villages of the ancient Anasazi Indians, who used sunlight to heat their homes (see 1200 and After). The winner of the challenge could have their design built by Dallas developers on a city block already set aside for the project. Co Op canyon would house up to 1,000 residents, who would be almost completely independent and sustainable between the solar energy, rainwater collection, and agriculture from the community gardens. The community would have a communal kitchen, gathering area, child care facility, fitness center, and retail space. It is designed to have a near-zero carbon footprint. (Meinhold 6/8/2009)

The Center for American Progress releases a study that shows how economically viable a transition from the US’s current dependence on carbon-intensive and fossil fuels to a clean energy economy can be. Making this transition is a necessity, the study says, due to “global climate change due to rising carbon emissions” forcing the US to “dramatically cut its consumption of traditional fossil fuels, the primary source of carbon dioxide (CO2) delivered into our atmosphere by human activity.” The transition must achieve three interrelated goals:
bullet Dramatically increasing energy efficiency;
bullet Dramatically lowering the cost of supplying energy from such renewable sources of energy as solar, wind, and biomass; and
bullet Mandating limits and then establishing a price on pollution from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
According to the study, a dramatic decrease in CO2 emissions can be achieved alongside an increase in employment opportunities, individual incomes, and economic growth. The authors of the study say their work is done within the parameters of two government initiatives: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—see February 2009) and the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), which remains to be passed by Congress. Taken together, the authors claim, the two measures can generate roughly $150 billion per year in new clean-energy investments in the United States over the next decade. Most of this new spending will be undertaken by the private sector, the authors say, triggered by the ARRA and the yet-to-be-passed ACESA, and will, they predict, create some 1.7 million new jobs that will be sustained if the spending continues year after year. That job gain would drop the unemployment rate about one percent, “even after taking into full account the inevitable job losses in conventional fossil fuel sectors of the US economy as they contract.” The authors say the clean energy program would do a great deal to combat the recession. The program would rely on three elements:
bullet Regulations aimed at promoting clean energy;
bullet A mandated cap on carbon emissions that will be phased in through 2050; and
bullet Measures designed to help businesses, communities, and individuals successfully manage the transition to a clean-energy economy.
The authors conclude: “To be sure, any economic modeling effort that estimates changes in employment growth, economic growth, and income growth will result in forecasts that are problematic by nature. We make this clear in our paper wherever we rely on our own economic models and those employed by others. But we also take pains to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the modeling approaches—including our own. This enables us to cross check our own conclusions with those of other researchers to reach the most reliable possible understanding of the overall impact of advancing a clean-energy agenda within the US economy.” (Pollin, Heintz, and Garrett-Peltier 6/18/2009; Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Heidi Garrett-Peltier 6/18/2009 pdf file)

One of the most active investors in clean energy technology, venture fund manager Vinod Khosla, says he has raised $1 billion for two funds, much of the money from outside investors, that will be used primarily to fund cleantech startup businesses. One firm joining Khosla in the investment is CalPERS, the California pension fund, which intends to invest $60 million into an early-stage clean technology fund. Khosla Ventures is also being joined by former Facebook executive Gideon Yu; former fund manager Jim Kim, who also has a background in clean technology; and Pierre Lamond, the co-founder of National Semiconductor and a partner at Sequoia Capital. (Fehrenbacher 9/1/2009)

Billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros says he plans to invest over $1 billion in clean energy technology. Soros is well known for his donations to liberal and progressive causes (see January - November 2004 and February 2007), but has not been prominent in the field of clean energy until now. The online magazine GigaOm reports that Soros’s decision is “another proof point that cleantech has emerged during the recession as one of the few sectors worth investing in.” Clean energy technology, propelled by investments by venture fund manager Vinod Khosla (see September 1, 2009), was the leading investment category in the US in the third quarter of 2009. Soros tells a conference audience in Copenhagen, “I will look for profitable opportunities, but I will also insist that the investments make a real contribution to solving the problem of climate change.” He also intends to start a watchdog group called the Climate Policy Initiative that will, he says, “protect the public interest against special interests.” (GigaOm 10/12/2009)

David White, who chairs the Energy Practice Group at Oregon’s Tonkon Corporation, writes in the Portland, Oregon, Daily Journal of Commerce about a pilot program going into effect that affects Oregon solar energy users. The Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) is starting a program that White says “offers a promising alternative to more traditional financing of solar projects.” Traditionally, solar projects in Oregon have been financed with a combination of state business energy tax credits (BETCs), incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), federal tax credits, and credits from the utility based on the energy produced by the solar facility but not used by the customer. The BETCs are set to expire in 2012, thusly the new program offers new incentives for solar energy producers. White writes: “Under the pilot program, solar owners will be able to sell the energy they produce back to the utility at rates more than five times retail electricity rates. They also will be eligible for federal tax credits, but not BETCs or ETO incentives. The program is geared primarily to small (less than 10 kilowatt) and medium-sized (10 kilowatt to 100 kilowatt) solar producers, but systems of up to 500 kilowatts will qualify. That’s pretty big when you think of two acres covered with solar panels.” Net metering will be an option for systems generating 100 kilowatts or less, essentially allowing those producers to receive monthly credits equal to the electricity they generate. Solar producers can even sell excess energy to the utility at market rates. White acknowledges that the reception to the program has been mixed. Supporters say similar programs in Germany made that country the world’s largest solar energy producer; critics say the program has limited capacity and relies on an uncertain bidding process. White says the program “provides financial incentive options for solar owners in the short-term and for Oregon’s solar industry in the long-term.… The pilot program reflects a new public policy perspective. Rather than having solar development hinge on the inherently unstable BETC approach, which is funded by the general public, this pilot program is paid for by utility customers through higher retail rates. Businesses and homeowners should sharpen their pencils and compare the options based on their individual needs.” (White 6/16/2010)

China is among the nations spending the most on clean and renewable energy technologies, according to investment figures released by the advisory company Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Overall, the world’s nations invested $243 billion in clean energy in 2010, up from $185.5 billion in 2009 and double the amount of money invested in 2006. Bloomberg CEO Michael Liebriech says: “This is a spectacular result, beating previous record investment levels by a clear margin of more than $50 billion. It flies in the face of skepticism about the clean energy sector among public market investors.” Small-scale distributed generation projects such as rooftop solar arrays saw the biggest increase, with Germany investing the most and nations like the Czech Republic, Italy, and the US following behind. China invested more than any other nation in clean energy, spending over $51 billion. Nations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa still spend the most, collectively, on clean energy technology, but the nations of Asia and Oceania have surpassed American spending and are closing the gap on the regional leaders. Public market investment rose in 2010 after recession-driven lows in 2008 and 2009. (RenewableEnergyWorld 1/11/2011)

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.” (Naam 3/16/2011; Investopedia 2013)

The US has slipped to third place in clean energy investment in 2010, despite the federal government’s push to promote investment in clean energy and reduced pollution (see February 2009). China (see January 11, 2011) and Germany are both outspending the US in clean energy investment, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Phyllis Cuttino, the director of Pew’s Clean Energy Program, says, “The United States’s position as a leading destination for clean energy investment is declining because its policy framework is weak and uncertain.” As competitors adopt renewable energy standards and incentives for renewable energy investment, the US could fall even further behind, Cuttino warns. The US spent $34 billion last year on clean energy, while China invested $54.4 billion and Germany $41.2 billion. (Koch 3/29/2011)

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, writes an op-ed for the New York Times claiming that solar power production is too costly in part because of the “huge” amount of land it requires. “[W]hile energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources—most notably, land,” he writes. “Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.” Bryce cites as one example the Ivanpah solar plant, which takes up about five and a half acres in the Mojave Desert and will generate about 370 megawatts of power when completed (see September 22, 2013). “The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan,” he writes. “While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act” (see August 13, 2013). Wind power generation consumes even more land, he writes, citing the example of a wind farm in Texas that covers 154 square miles and generates over 781 megawatts of energy. Add to that the need for “long swaths of land for power lines,” and you have what one conservation group calls “energy sprawl,” the need for large amounts of land to generate power. He concludes: “All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to [keep power generation systems small] while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources—natural gas and, yes, nuclear—that have smaller footprints.” (Bryce 8/6/2011)
'Gusher of Lies' - In 2010, the progressive news Web site Think Progress called Bryce’s book “a gusher of lies,” and recruited renewable energy expert Adam Siegel to debunk it. Siegel wrote: “Masquerading as an unbiased, fact-based look at America’s energy situation and viable paths forward into the future, Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry is a mixed collection of factual material, thought-provoking constructs, selective ‘truthiness,’ questionable (if not simply wrong) data crunching, and outright deceptions. This mix of material makes Bryce’s work dangerous reading for those without a serious grounding in energy (related) issues while that same mix calls into question this work’s value for anyone with that more serious background.” (Siegel 9/14/2010)
Counter-Claims - In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.” Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development. The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife 1/14/2013 pdf file; Theel 1/24/2013)

The US Defense Department increased its spending on clean and renewable energy sources by 300 percent, from $400 million to $1.2 billion, between 2006 and 2009, according to a Pew Research report. By 2010, the Defense Department had spent upwards of $10 billion on clean energy. CleanTechnica reports that the “investments are helping spur development and deployment of clean energy technologies in three key areas: vehicle efficiency, advanced biofuels, and the installation of renewable energy systems at military bases.” Phyllis Cuttino, head of the Pew Clean Energy Program, says: “As one of the largest energy consumers in the world, the Department of Defense has the ability to help shape America’s energy future. DoD’s efforts to harness clean energy will save lives, save money, and enhance the nation’s energy and economic future. Their work is also helping to spur the growth of the clean energy economy.” Fuel shipments make up 80 percent of all supply convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those convoys are premium targets for insurgents. Deploying clean energy alternatives will reduce the number of convoys needed to be dispatched, and as a result will save lives and improve the security of American military operations. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus says: “For the Department of the Navy to meet the challenges we face in the 21st century, we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil and find ways to use energy more efficiently. We must ensure that we remain the most formidable expeditionary force in the world, even in these challenging economic times. We can do that in part by changing the way we use, acquire, and produce energy. Before the end of the decade, our programs to develop and use alternative sources of energy, on shore and at sea, will pay for themselves. We will save the department money, but more importantly, these energy initiatives will make us better war fighters and will saves lives.” (CleanTechnica 9/23/2011)

The Los Angeles Times publishes a long analysis of the environmental impact solar power projects are expected to have on the southwestern US desert (see August 13, 2013). Written by Julie Cart, the analysis focuses on the Ivanpah solar power project in the Mojave (see September 22, 2013), which is projected to expand to some 3,500 acres of public land when finished. The plant “will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility, and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource [the firm building the plant] has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species, and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.” Environmental attorney Johanna Wald, who was involved in the negotiations to build the plant, says: “I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection. I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.” Cart says that plants like the Ivanpah facility will result in “a wholesale remodeling of the American desert” in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. “[H]undreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear,” Cart writes. “Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created. The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.” Dennis Schramm, the former superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, warns: “The scale of impacts that we are facing, collectively across the desert, is phenomenal. The reality of the Ivanpah project is that what it will look like on the ground is worse than any of the analyses predicted.” Cart writes that at the moment, solar energy is “three times more expensive than natural gas or coal” because of “capital costs and other market factors,” and ratepayers will pay “as much as 50 percent higher for renewable energy, according to an analysis from the consumer advocate branch of the [California] state Public Utilities Commission.” The impact on the environment will be dramatic in some places, with birds and other wildlife abandoning some areas entirely, and the possible “massive losses of pollinators because you have all these insects getting burned in the mirrors,” according to government biologist Larry LaPre. Desert tortoise expert Jeffrey Lovich says no one really knows the impact the plants will have on the desert. “This is an experiment on a grand scale,” he says. “Science is racing to catch up.” Most large environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have chosen not to protest the development, instead agreeing to become part of the negotiation process and winning some environmental concessions from the developers. Wald, who works with the NRDC, says of the projects: “We didn’t make them perfect. We didn’t eliminate their environmental impact because you can’t eliminate the environmental impact. But we made them better.” (Cart 2/5/2012)
Refutation of Land Use Requirements - In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.” Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development. The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife 1/14/2013 pdf file; Theel 1/24/2013)

President Obama speaks on the topic of clean energy in front of the Copper Mountain Solar Project in Boulder City, Nevada, in March 2012.President Obama speaks on the topic of clean energy in front of the Copper Mountain Solar Project in Boulder City, Nevada, in March 2012. [Source: CleanTechnica (.org)]An analysis by Reuters claims that the $90 billion investment made by the federal government to generate jobs in the field of clean energy (see February 2009) has not produced as many jobs as initially touted. In March 2012, President Obama spoke in front of the Copper Mountain Solar Project in Boulder City, Nevada, which uses 1 million solar panels to power 17,000 homes. The facility only employs 10 people. The green initiative has put people to work retrofitting over a million homes to lower heating and cooling costs, and energy generation from solar and wind sources has nearly doubled since 2008. But some say the program has not created enough jobs. Critics say the program was expected to lower the unemployment rate, currently hovering above 8 percent, and say it has not done so. Supporters say the administration promised too much in the short term and fear a backlash that might undermine support for clean-energy policies across the board. Clean energy specialist Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution says, “All of this stuff is extraordinarily worthy for driving long-term economic transformation but extremely inappropriate to sell as a short-term job program.” Janet Bluman, head of the Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow, says, “From my perspective it makes more sense for us to arm our clients with the basic skills, rather than saying, ‘By golly, you will do something in the green economy or you won’t work.’” Bluman claims that her organization, which trains people for jobs in the Las Vegas area, has seen positions in trucking and accounting go unfilled because training money had been earmarked for green efforts. The federal program earmarked some $500 million for job training, and has employed some 20,000 people, far short of its stated goal. Republicans say the clean-energy program is merely a way for the Obama administration to give money to Obama’s friends (see October 15, 2012). GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has claimed, “[Obama] handed out tens of billions of dollars to green energy companies, including his friends and campaign contributors at companies like Solyndra that are now bankrupt.” Romney and other Republicans have not advanced proof of their allegations. Supporters say that in the long term, clean energy will “create a bounty of stable, middle-class jobs and fill the gap left by manufacturing work that has moved overseas,” as Reuters reports. White House officials say that there is more to the clean energy program than creating jobs. “We have a record of success that has created tens of thousands of jobs and is ensuring that America is not ceding these industries to countries like China,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens says. “Thanks to the investments we’ve made, these industries will continue to grow, along with the jobs they create.” Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), an opponent of the program, says: “The green jobs-training program just didn’t work. It was a poor investment of tax dollars.” Darren Devine of the College of Southern Nevada says: “Will it add a significant number of jobs, enough to make a real dent in our unemployment? No, I don’t see that happening.” What it will do is help the country reduce its energy consumption, lower the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, and help create jobs in the clean-energy and other fields, such as health care, education, and technology. (Sullivan 4/13/2012)

A small New Jersey utility leads the nation in providing solar-powered electricity to its customers. The Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority provides solar-generated power to its 25,000 customers, leading the nation on a watts-per-customer basis, according to an analysis by the Solar Energy Power Association. Three of the state’s four electric utilities are among the top 10 nationwide in the amount of electricity generated from solar units installed or the number of watts produced from solar during 2011. The utilities in New Jersey, far from battling solar energy, are embracing it, though some fear this push will be undercut by a proposed cut in the prices solar owners earn for the power their units produce. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is considering whether to expand the utilities’ solar promotion efforts, a move supported by the solar industry. Proponents say the move would help stabilize the solar energy market in the state, which is trying to handle a drop in the amount of money solar systems earn for their owners. The Vineland utility, located in Cumberland County, used to operate one of the dirtiest coal plants in the state to provide its customers with electricity. The analysis shows that utilities are increasing their involvement in building solar plants, contrasting the status of a few years ago, when the market was dominated by customer-owned, net-metered systems that do not supply electricity directly to the grid. (Johnson 4/18/2012)

The conservative Investors Business Daily (IBD) publishes an op-ed criticizing the White House’s willingness to grant permits for solar energy producers to use public lands to build their solar plants. The editorial says, “Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, who has apparently forgotten about the Obama administration’s many solar power scandals, announced the initiative in what he called a ‘proud moment,’” apparently a swipe at the administration over the Solyndra bankruptcy, and then makes the broad claim: “There were no solar projects on federal land when Barack Obama was elected four years ago. And for good reason: Solar is an inferior source of energy.” Fossil fuels are cheaper, more efficient, sun-dependent, and even cleaner, the editorial claims, writing: “Solar power needs a large—and ugly—footprint that creates its own environmental issues. Solar cells contain toxic materials and therefore create toxic waste.” The editorial concludes by lambasting the Obama administration for not opening public lands for oil and gas development. (Investors Business Daily 8/1/2012) In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife 1/14/2013 pdf file; Theel 1/24/2013)

In an editorial claiming that the Obama administration is engaged in giving preferential land-use permits to solar energy producers over fossil fuel corporations, the Wall Street Journal claims, “The dirty secret of solar and wind power is that they are extremely land intensive, especially compared to coal mining, oil and gas drilling, or building a nuclear power plant.” (Wall Street Journal 8/13/2012) In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” (National Renewable Energy Laboratory 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife 1/14/2013 pdf file; Theel 1/24/2013)

A brief article in the Wall Street Journal claims that solar energy does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aggregate, because the carbon savings from desert-based solar projects will be offset by “disturbing caliche deposits that release carbon dioxide.” The Journal cites a formal complaint filed by three Western environmental organizations claiming that desert-based solar projects not only endanger desert ecosystems, but “soil disturbance from large-scale solar development may disrupt Pleistocene-era caliche deposits that release carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to the elements, thus negat[ing] the solar development C [carbon] gains.” The Journal acknowledges that some aspects of the complaint may be exaggerated. The Journal does not mention that the report cited in the complaint, a 2011 study released by the University of California-Riverside, says that the 560,000 metric tons of carbon saved per year by a single solar plant would more than offset the estimated 6,000 metric tons of carbon released by disturbing caliche deposits. (Wall Street Journal 9/4/2012; Theel 1/24/2013)

Analyses by the New York Times and show that presidential candidate Mitt Romney made some fundamental misstatements when he criticized the Obama administration’s green energy program (see February 2009). During the October 3 presidential debate, Romney claimed Obama had given $90 billion of federal money to clean energy programs, saying at one point: “Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives. Ninety billion—that—that would have—that would have hired two million teachers.” The Times reports that while the $90 billion is an accurate number drawn from the 2009 economic stimulus package, not all of it was spent on green energy, and much of the money that was spent on green energy programs was authorized during the Bush administration. Of the $90 billion authorized by the Obama administration, $29 billion went to energy efficiency programs; much of that was spent on retrofitting homes and apartments of low-income households to be more energy efficient and lower their energy costs. $18 billion was spent on fast, energy-efficient trains and $21 billion was spent on wind farms, solar panels, and other renewable energy. Much of these expenditures was matched by private investments. Romney claimed, “I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in, they’ve gone out of business,” and cited the example of Solyndra, a maker of solar equipment that went bankrupt, costing the government some $528 million. The Times notes that Solyndra began receiving money during the Bush administration, and that the government has been able to recover some of its funds from other firms that went bankrupt. The Times writes, “The defaults were far less than Congress had allocated to cover losses, and far, far less than half of the ventures, although some others may yet fail.” FactCheck, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, goes further, noting, “In summary, Romney said a lot about the $90 billion in stimulus spending on clean energy—and very little of it was accurate.” FactCheck accuses Romney of making “numerous bogus claims” about the $90 billion energy funding. Only six percent of the firms loaned money by the government for clean energy technology have gone bankrupt, it notes, not “about half,” as Romney claimed. Romney also wrongly stated that the entire $90 billion was spent on “solar and wind” projects; in reality, less than a third was spent on those programs. His claim that the $90 billion was equivalent to “about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives” in tax breaks was doubly wrong; by his own figures, it would have been 32 years’ worth, but real data shows it is closer to about 10 years’ worth of oil and gas subsidies. The claim that Obama could “have hired two million teachers” was wrong, since much of that $90 billion was in the form of loans, and, FactCheck notes, “the government can’t hire teachers with loans.” Even data provided by the Romney campaign to back up its claims disproves Romney’s assertions. (Wald 10/4/2012; FactCheck (.org) 10/4/2012)

Conservative columnist Charles Lane, writing for the Washington Post, pens a column deriding the renewable energy industry and says that powerful Democratic politicians are using that industry to make themselves rich. He cites the example of former Vice President Al Gore, who has made somewhere around $100 million “partly through investing in alternative energy firms subsidized by the Obama administration.” Lane juxtaposes this information with a note that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney earned the cheers of “thousands” when, at a rally in Ohio, he proclaimed his support for the coal industry. Lane writes that liberals and Democrats are profiting handsomely by forcing the government to subsidize what he characterizes as an industry doomed to failure: “As the Democrats become more committed to, and defined by, a green agenda, and as they become dependent on money from high-tech venture capitalists and their lobbyists, it becomes harder to describe them as a party for the little guy—or liberalism as a philosophy of distributive justice.” Lane claims that Gore has an inherent conflict of interest in speaking out about alternative energy and climate change while at the same time investing in alternative energy research and development. He then lambasts the entire renewable energy industry as “not cost-competitive with traditional energy,” and claims that it “won’t be for years. So it can’t work without either taxpayer subsidies, much of which accrue to ‘entrepreneurs’ such as Gore, or higher prices for fossil energy—the brunt of which is borne by people of modest means.” Lane writes that “expensive electricity is bad for industry, as Germany is discovering. Fact is, subsidies for green energy do not so much create jobs as shift them around.” So-called “smart grids,” advanced technology that makes conventional electricity’s transmission more efficient and reliable, is bad, he writes, because it puts “human meter readers” out of work, “just as solar panels put coal miners out of work.” If any new energy technology is worth pursuing, he writes, it is “fracking,” the industry practice that promises to extract millions of tons of natural gas from the ground. Solar and other renewable energy industries would not exist if it were not for government subsidies, he claims, and will never be sustainable without government payouts. (Lane 10/15/2012) Lane’s claim about Germany’s failure to create jobs in its renewable energy industry is contradicted by a German study showing that the industry creates hundreds of thousands of jobs each year (see July 31, 2013). Similarly, his claim that wealthy solar energy producers are sustained by higher rates paid by poor consumers will be strongly challenged (see April 5, 2013).

The federal government sets an ambitious number of goals for cleaner energy production and reduced pollution in the nation. Power plants will have stricter emission standards; the approval for the Keystone XL oil transportation system will be re-evaluated; new clean energy investments on federally owned land will be considered; and state and international leaders will be brought into discussions about meeting challenges caused by climate change and global warming. Some of the goals include:
bullet a 30 percent increase in federal funding for clean energy projects, including advanced biofuels, by 2014;
bullet doubling wind and solar power generation by 2020;
bullet six million homes to be powered by solar energy by 2020;
bullet three gigawatts of solar and renewable energy to be generated on military bases by 2025. (Adam Johnston 7/2013)

A report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) finds that within a decade or so, solar energy and other renewable distributed energy resources (DER) could lay waste to the utility business model and to American power utilities. The utility business model, which has remained relatively unchanged since the early 20th century, is not capable of coping with the “disruptive challenges” posed to it by solar and other renewable energy power generation. David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental news publication Grist, will write of the EEI report in April 2013: “It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.” Standard power utilities are “regulated monopolies,” which means they are the sole providers of power in their service areas. The business model relies on the utilities selling power as “overseen” by public utility commissions (PUCs), which control what utilities can charge for their power. Inexpensive solar (photovoltaic, or PV) power “eats away at [that business model] like acid,” Roberts writes. Solar power is not regulated for the benefit of the utility companies. In simplistic terms, a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of solar energy generated by, say, a rooftop solar array is a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility. Solar power peaks each day at noon, usually the time of most intense sunlight, which is one of the power utilities’ “peak load” times. Power utilities make much of their profits from peak load electricity, as they charge more per kwh for peak load electricity. Roberts writes, “[W]hen solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.” The EEI report also challenges the myth that power consumers must rely on grid power and not solar power because solar power is not available when the sun is not shining. Battery storage, micro turbine, and other developing technologies are making it possible for many consumers to go entirely “grid free,” to opt out of grid-generated electricity entirely. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says, “If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” If a large number of consumers begin generating their own power and using the grid for backup alone, the EEI report says, the utilities face “irreparable damage to [their] revenues and growth prospects.” Utilities generally anticipate revenues that allow them to invest heavily in fossil fuel plants that will not recoup costs for 30 years. Those investments could be more difficult to recoup if consumers begin generating their own power via solar and other DER power sources, leading the utility companies to contemplate raising the rates of those consumers who do not opt out of grid-based power. The EEI report states: “The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers… and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions. Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).” In other words, as consumers begin to opt out of grid-based power consumption, and utilities raise their rates to compensate for the loss of revenue, more and more consumers will opt out, further shrinking the number of consumers paying the utilities to generate their electricity. Even small numbers of consumers using rooftop solar strikes at the utilities’ main profit centers (one reason why German utilities are already feeling the pinch). Currently, less than 1 percent of US electricity is generated by solar arrays. But a projection by Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts that in some areas of the nation, up to 10 percent of power load will be generated by solar arrays. The EEI report speculates that utility consumers in those areas will see massive increases in their rates as the utilities compensate for the lost revenues. (Kind 1/2013 pdf file; Roberts 4/10/2013)

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. (Oremus 2/7/2013; Greenberg 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. (Joshi 2/11/2013)

Solar expert David Roberts, a columnist for the online magazine Grist, writes that like most modern industrial systems, the traditional electricity generating utility is extraordinarily “over-engineered,” which he defines as “built to be prepared for maximum demand even though maximum demand is, by definition, rare.” Over-engineering is not necessarily a bad thing; for example, an SUV can be considered “over-engineered” until it becomes involved in a collision, when its capability of protecting its passengers comes into play. The electricity system is also over-engineered, Roberts says, mostly because there is no simple way to store electricity. Demand for electricity must be met by generated electricity; it cannot be stored. “That imposes a certain logic on the system,” he writes. “There must always be enough power generation capacity available to handle the maximum possible demand (what’s called ‘peak load’). The result is that most of our power plants, like most of our cars, spend most of their time parked, idled. They are there for those few minutes of the day when everyone gets home from work and turns on the TV.” Because of the “real-time” nature of the electrical grid, it is susceptible to blackouts. On occasion, less responsive grids are prone to cascade failures, leading to hundreds of thousands of customers being without power. In contrast, Roberts writes, the data grid operating the Internet is “fault-tolerant,” with built-in responsive features to handle blockages, slowdowns, and errors. The Internet uses buffering to increase the durability of the system and reduce the need for overcapacity, and has the capability to isolate and route around faults and failures. Electricity systems generally have neither. These capacities can be built into modern electrical grids, and the costs of such upgrades is declining. But most utility companies do not install such upgrades. Why not? Because, he writes, “the oversight system governing the utilities does not provide incentive for upgrades. These costs must be shared directly with the ratepayer and public service commissions have been reluctant to approve such measures.” Public utility commissions (PUCs) are obliged by law to have utilities provide power at the lowest cost to the consumer, and as a result there is no incentive for utilities to spend more money than necessary upgrading and improving their systems. “There is no way build a new power system while also providing lowest-cost electricity from moment to moment,” he writes. “It’s impossible. The legal and regulatory system is practically built to prevent long-term systemic change.” As the energy production and transmission systems of the United States transform themselves into a 21st-century model, systems will need to be redesigned. Roberts concludes: “We could be doing that with our electrical system. We would be doing it already if we had open, competitive markets for electricity services. Instead we have quasi-public quasi-monopolies practically mandated by law to stick with what they know and nibble around the edges. Until that legal and regulatory system changes, we’ll be stuck with the dumb, over-engineered, wasteful system we have today.” (Roberts 2/7/2013)

San Antonio electric utility CPS Energy says it intends to cut the amount it pays for solar power generated from residential customers by about half, claiming that some of the city’s power users are not paying their fair share for the utility’s transmission infrastructure. Clean energy activists and system installers say the cuts are intended to cripple the region’s solar industry. Lanny Sinkin of Solar San Antonio says: “There was zero consultation with the solar industry in the development of this proposal. They’re going to kill the solar industry.” CPS, a municipally owned utility that in theory is owned by the ratepayers, wants to end the current system of “net metering,” which allows residential customers with solar panels to use each kilowatt-hour of energy they generate to cancel each kilowatt-hour they draw from the utility’s electric grid—in essence, the residence owners cancel a kilowatt-hour they pay for to CPS (at retail rates) by generating a kilowatt-hour of solar energy. Instead, CPS proposes a system it calls “SunCredit,” which would assign a fixed value to the price of the solar power produced and credit that amount against their accounts. The SunCredit program would give only a little over half of what a kilowatt-hour of solar power is worth under net metering, by crediting residential consumers with solar-produced kilowatt-hours at CPS’s wholesale rate. CPS spokesperson Lisa Lewis says of the existing practice: “I think that it’s not unimportant to recognize that solar customers use poles and wires and the grid. If we move to a situation where more and more customers have solar systems, they leave that infrastructure cost… stranded, and the people who can least afford to pay it are the ones paying for it” (see January 2013). Existing solar power producers would be granted the existing rates until 2023, while new solar producers would begin receiving the new, lower rate immediately.
Decision Already Made? - Although Lewis says the utility is still soliciting feedback on the program and will consider making changes, Sinkin says the utility has already made its decision. Recently, the utility informed the public of its decision during a contentious meeting, when solar installers said the new program would make it impossible for them to sell systems to the public. CPS Energy instituted cuts in its solar subsidies in 2012 when it reduced the size of the rebate it offers to help customers cover the cost of installing their solar power systems at their homes.
Expert Explains Issue - Solar expert David Roberts of Grist explains the issue, writing: “Under net metering, if a rooftop solar customer generates as much electricity as she consumes, she pays nothing. If she generates more than she consumes, the utility pays her. In either case, her portion of the utility’s fixed costs is transferred onto other, non-solar ratepayers. As more and more people opt for solar, fixed costs are paid by a smaller and smaller group of customers, which drives rates up, which drives more and more of them to solar, in a vicious cycle. The utility’s fixed assets are ‘stranded’—it is unable to recover those investment costs because of the shrinking pool of customers. (It’s also worth noting that the first customers to go solar tend to be well-off, which leaves the less well-off paying more, so there’s an economic-justice angle here too.)” Roberts notes that CPS is being ingenuous in its contentions that solar consumers are costing the utility money, as rooftop solar arrays save the utility money in terms of avoided transmission and equipment costs. Moreover, solar power benefits the region in reduced air pollution and carbon emissions. He also notes that CPS did not hesitate to offer its employees $16.4 million in bonuses in 2012 (most of which went to the firm’s top executives), the same year it cut its solar subsidies. Roberts concludes: “The dilemma… is how to align CPS’s incentives so that it can drive rapid solar adoption and reliably recover costs from its fixed assets and protect its lower-income ratepayers from being unfairly burdened. If we can’t figure out a solution to that dilemma, more and more utilities will do what CPS is doing and the spread of rooftop solar in the US, which has barely gotten underway, will slow to a crawl. That isn’t what we want, is it?” (Vaughn 6/21/2012; Hicks 4/9/2013; Roberts 4/12/2013)
Idea that Solar Power Consumers Pay Unfairly Low Share Challenged - Many solar advocates have successfully challenged the idea that solar power consumers cost their area’s utilities revenue (see April 5, 2013).
Utility Agrees to Postpone Implementation - Following the announcement, CPS will agree to postpone implementation of the new policy for a year and to work with solar advocates to craft changes to the policy. (CPS Energy 5/9/2013; Roberts 5/15/2013)

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