Solar success story stays in shadow

by David Tenenbaum


hotovoltaics are finally set to contribute a meaningful amount of electricity. You do remember PV, don't you? The solar electricity source that, during the energy crises of the 1970s, promised to save the world from fossil fuels. These de-centralized power generators would democratize energy, cut pollution, slow strip-mining and reduce oil spills.

Long before we began dreading greenhouse warming, these advantages made PV the holy grail of environmentalists. Yet there was a major problem: PVs were expensive.

Yes, we were told, the price would drop eventually. But eventually never seemed to arrive, and no amount of support from enthusiastic environmentalists could give PVs a real role in real-world energy production.

Sure, PV's made sense for satellites, the Australian outback, and elsewhere beyond the reach of power lines. But by 1995, all solar sources combined contributed only 0.003 percent to the US electricity supply. Eventually, the stubborn price problem caused many PV champions to lose interest and focus on conservation instead.

Yet behind our backs (aided by $1.5 billion in federal subsidies over the past 25 years), PV is making a big comeback. Prices have fallen by a factor of 100 since 1972. Manufacturing costs are still dropping and efficiencies are still rising. Some electric utilities have even lost their fear of PV, and are talking, in their gray-suited way, about an "appropriate mix" of energy supplies.

In other words, with little notice from environmentalists, a real industry has arisen: Solar shingles, which keep out rain and produce electricity, reached the market this year. So did other thin-film solar panels. This long-heralded, cut-rate technology avoids the need for expensive crystalline silicon.

U.S. solar power manufacturers had record sales of $850-million in 1996, supplying 39 percent of world PV output. Globally, PV output is growing 15 percent per year, with a doubling time of less than five years. PV manufacturers have waiting lists of six months or more and are frantically building capacity.

While demand is particularly heavy in less-developed countries, where the electric infrastructure is weak or nonexistent, one of the most promising developments is in California. Last May, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced that it would spend $22-million on enough equipment to generate 10 million watts of electricity.

The largest contract in PV history will supply only 3,000 customers during the day (which is when the utility's demand peaks). But it should give manufacturers significant economies of scale. So over the five years of the project, the installed prices is slated to drop from $5 per watt in 1998 to $3 per watt by 2002.


Can be a contender


According to green-eyeshade analysts, $3 per watt is the figure at whichPV becomes "competitive". Translated: at three bucks per watt it will be just as cheap to mount a PV panel on your roof as to deliver juice through the wires. Subsidies could become irrelevant and PV will be competitive with fossil fuels on price alone even ignoring its phenomenal environmental advantages.

How close are we? John Thornton, leader of PV applications at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, calls $3 per watt by 2002 "a realistic number. Many things have to happen .. but technically it's possible."

In other words, the solar millennium could arrive shortly after the chronological one. Within five years, it will be just as cheap (in sunny locations) to use solar power as conventional electricity. Yet experts warn that capacity will be unable to meet demand.

And $3 per watt is not magic. As mass-production improves, PV's will increasingly be made with techniques of the glass and plastics industries. John Bigger of the Utility Photovoltaic Group says $1 per watt is a reasonable price projection at some point after 2010.

Meanwhile, another form of solar electricity is perking in the Mojave Desert, where an experimental plant concentrates solar energy and heats salt, which boils water and drives a turbine. By storing hot salt, the experimental "Desert Two" plant is cranking its generators 24 hours a day.

Although deregulation is refocusing electric utilities on cheapest-source power at the expense of conservation and renewables, it could also give consumers more choice in suppliers, which could be a boon for "green" power. In fact, consumers are already voting with their pocketbooks: When SMUD recruited volunteers for the "privilege" of paying extra for solar electricity, more than 2,000 people applied for 100 slots in the program.


Behind closed doors?


If a revolution is sweeping the energy sector, you could be excused for not knowing. In all the discussions of greenhouse warming, solar energy is mentioned more as a joke than a solution. Even many former advocates are largely silent, burned out by premature expectations for a technology that was not too good to be true, but was too good to be true tomorrow.

Looking back, it's understandable that a new technology developed for "damn-the-cost" satellites would not be affordable for many years on the ground. But those years are mainly past. As the world considers how to deal with climate change, "solar" should be considered a solution, not a joke.

Sure, solar will continue thriving based largely on its free-market virtues and will eventually compete head to head with planet-warming fossil fuels.

But the market is ignorant of the impending calamity of global warming, and for our sakes, solar could use some help. I get a cold feeling from the Clinton Administration's miserly $60-million subsidy for solar research and development. It wouldn't cost much to accelerate the solar millennium, if only we recognized that this clean technology is finally ready for real action.

  David Tenenbaum is the feature writer at The Why Files. Let us know what you think:; www.liberty