Solar Conference’s Optimism Shines

Political and economic developments certainly gave renewed purpose to the ASES conference as speaker after speaker hailed the resurgent interest in solar energy and exhorted the participants to redouble their efforts to take advantage of this unique combination of events. There has never been a better chance to integrate solar technology into the mainstream of energy generation not only in the U.S. but also in other countries throughout the world. Solar energy can make a significant contribution to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. I have summarized some of the themes of the conference and in the months ahead SolarTown will revisit some of these issues in the Learning and Community sections of our site.

Substantial Room for New and Emerging Technologies

The conference showcased some of the new and emerging technologies. The market is currently dominated by crystalline technologies. Last year, 42% of the installations relied on single crystalline panels and 45%, on multi-crystalline technology. Despite amorphous modules constituting only 5.2% of the market, they are beginning to take hold. And new technologies are being developed that will also gain a foothold in the market. As solar energy becomes more of a fixture on the landscape of energy generation in the United States and abroad, new and emerging technologies will undoubtedly fight for market share. And five years from now, it may be difficult to recognize the market for solar modules from what it is today as these new and emerging technologies take on the crystalline and multi-crystalline giants.

Grid Parity Within Reach

It should not be surprising that as the market rapidly expands, new innovations are coming off the line at an ever quickening pace. Modules efficiency is quickly increasing and in the past year alone the crystalline technologies improved efficiency from 14.3% to 15. Thin film technology is also improving and now boasts efficiencies of up to 9%. Several of the speakers predicted that we will reach “grid parity,” the point at which solar energy is equal to grid power, by as early as 2015. In some places, such as New York and Italy, where the cost of electricity is high, grid parity will be achieved even sooner.

US Charges Ahead

Spain and Germany continue to lead the charge towards solar energy, but the US leaped into third place, overtaking Japan. Despite the perception that China is committed to fossil fuels—and its weekly opening of a coal-fired power plant—China is beginning to make a big push towards solar energy. The huge increase in the US is mostly on the shoulders of grid-tie systems, and California represents the largest market. But New York, through its New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is also providing significant incentives to its residents to go solar—which may have been one of the reasons that ASES decided to hold its annual conference in New York this year—the first in the 38 year history of ASES.

Incentives Key Lever to Solar Energy Use

Everyone wants to go solar, but everyone wants even more to go solar with government assistance and support. The principal lever to promote solar energy use is governmental incentives. The long-term extension of the 30% solar investment tax credit was a watershed in developing the use of solar energy in the United States. A stable regime of governmental incentives sends a strong message to consumers that the government will not abandon its push towards solar energy, and provides assurance that the rules of the game will not change with every election. The single most important factor in the drive towards solar energy is this basket of incentives. And states have provided additional incentives to fuel this drive. Among the leading states to create additional significant incentives are Massachusetts, Arizona, New York, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. We would expect to see the rush towards solar correspond not to the irradiance of the sun, but to the incentives that are available to consumers.

Solar Thermal Not the Poor Stepchild of the PV Market

Solar water heaters sometimes get lost in the shuffle. One speaker at the conference said that the challenges facing the solar water heater market include economics; the uncertainty of the regime of permits; and consumer awareness. Nevertheless in 2008, based on figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association, 139 MWTh (thermal equivalent) of solar heating were installed or 11% of a total of 1,265 MW of solar power—and a 50% increase over 2007. This figure compares favorably to the 342MW of solar photovoltaic installed in 2008. The largest amount of solar energy was 762 MWTh of pool heating.

The Time for Solar has Arrived

The highlight of the ASES conference was a profoundly insightful talk by Denis Hayes, President of the Bullitt Foundation and immediate Past Chair of the Energy Foundation of the international Earth Day Network. He warned that if we fail to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we will not have second chances. As he said, “Mother nature does not do bailouts.” He contrasted the fallout from economic collapses from which we can recover, and an environmental collapse, from which there is no recovery. And he properly pointed out that those of us who work in the renewable energy area have the best job in the world.