US solar power sector small but growing

Dec 10, 2013 by Veronique Dupont
US President Barack Obama speaks on his energy policies following a tour of the Copper Mountain Solar Project, the largest photovoltaic plant operating in the country in Boulder City, Nevada on March 21, 2012

Solar power, only a minuscule part of the energy mix in the United States, is getting a boost from cheap panels, growing acceptance by large companies and chances for homeowners to rent solar systems.

Analysts expect a phenomenal growth for renewable solar power over the next two decades, after huge gains in the past two years: 60 percent growth in 2012 and 30 percent on top of that this year.

Heavily reliant on oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear, the United States only gets 12 percent of its power from renewables, of which solar is the smallest part, less than one percent.

But the sector is expanding faster than any. There's no question, says Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution, that solar energy "will continue to grow quite dramatically."

The US Energy Information Administration predicts that photovoltaics—the semiconductor technology that converts sunlight into electricity—will grow 11.6 percent a year through 2040.

On top of that, it also predicts 3.6 percent annual growth for solar thermal energy, which uses vapor from water heated by the sun to drive turbines.

By comparison, wind power is expected to grow at two percent a year and geothermal power at four percent a year.

Ebinger attributes solar power's fast growth to a decrease in the price of photovoltaic panels in a generously oversupplied market, making the energy source more competitive with other types of renewable energy.

Additionally, the possibility for homeowners to simply rent panels rather than purchasing them has helped their popularity.

Around 55 percent of US demand for solar panels currently comes from power generating companies.

Another 30 percent comes from businesses that have large buildings and massive rooftops where installing solar systems for their own power makes sense.

Solar panels cover the roof of a Sam's Club store in Glendora, California that was toured by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wal-Mart officials before their press conference on Earth Day, April 22, 2009

This includes companies like retail giant Walmart, and Google, which puts the panels on top of its huge data centers.

The rest of demand comes from the residential sector.

Network links, battery storage still big challenges

Large obstacles still dot the road forward for US solar energy.

Ebinger said connecting solar power to existing electricity distribution networks requires substantial investment.

Solar power parks, built with thousands of panels in a single location to generate power, are often located in sparsely populated areas such as the deserts of the American southwest, far from industrial centers and household consumers.

Storage is another problem, because batteries remain expensive and very large.

SolarCity, the leading builder of solar electricity systems, is partnering with electric-car maker Tesla Motors to improve solar power storage, especially for private homes. Tesla's founder and chief executive, inventor Elon Musk, is chairman of SolarCity.

Storage is the key challenge.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at the installation the last of 1,727 solar panels on the rooftop of the Staples Center sports complex in Los Angeles, California on October 28, 2008

"You can rely around the clock on hydrocarbons, nuclear or even hydroelectricity," said Morningstar analyst Stephen Simko. But "with solar, when there is no sun there is no ."

Even if the threat of global warming makes using alternative energies more crucial, Simko said, on a purely economic basis, hydrocarbons are much cheaper and more profitable to work with.

"There is the issue of climate change, but if we are still talking about economics," he said, solar "is much more expensive and capital-intensive."

That is why governments need to continue supporting the sector, said Simko.

"The entire solar market in the US and rest of the world is based on tax credits and subsidies."

California is the largest producer of thanks to supportive legislation and favorable tax set-ups, followed by Arizona and New Jersey.

Angelo Zino, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ, expects that by the 2020s, will account for five percent of the electricity generated in the United States.

And Ebinger estimates that solar's growth could drive renewables to 20 percent of the entire energy market by 2030-2035.

Explore further: SolarCity to back up solar with Tesla batteries

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Jeddy_Mctedder
2.4 / 5 (11) Dec 10, 2013
I think if anything , watching the past decade in china and the west, it's clear that the current industrial infrastructure based around silicon solar panel production is complete UNABLE to scale up to the task of producing as much wattage as is necessary to replace the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, let alone nuclear and hyrdopower,

most people will scoff . as a huge solar power fan, i still believe that fundamental breakthrough's in both research innovations and manufacturing innovations lay ahead of us. to those of you following solar as long as I have, you would realistically call me an optimist. a pessimist is someone who simply thinks throwing substantially more government money in the hundreds of billions of money at this issue is sufficient and necessary to push forward solar. it is neither sufficient, nor is that scale of government investment necessary.

future improvements inwill make solar over an order of magnitiude more financially competitive than it is now
Cocoa
2.2 / 5 (6) Dec 10, 2013
Jeddy - a question and two comments. Who ever suggested that silicon solar panels were (alone) going to have to replace fossil fuels?

comment 1 - renewable energy consists of an array of sources - including wind, solar (pv, and concentrated), wave, tidal, geothermal, bio fuels, etc.

Comment 2 - we are at a very early stage in the implementation of a massive switch over in terms of power. While still a small percentage of total at this point - the curve is going up fast. Take a look at this article. Look at the graph - and how steep the curve is going. http://www.treehu...012.html 100 gigawatts is no small achievement. There is no reason to believe that renewables cannot replace fossil fuels in time - just be a little patient.
rmk948
3 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2013
If renewables will constitute 20% of vastly increased production of energy by 2035, some fundamental rethinking is in order. Nuclear and natural gas will have to be ramped up tremendously.
Cocoa
1 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2013
mk948 - is your conclusion based on any specific research - or just a personal opinion? Are you aware of the countries around the world that are currently already past this 20% mark? Yes storage will be needed eventually - the cost curves on wind and solar coming down so much. We can currently integrate up to around 40% - and it is clear that eventually we will be able to go up to 100% - with a certain percentage of storage.
Skin Effect
2.2 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2013
You folks are dreaming if you think silicon PV is a "solution" to anything. My experience over the past 25 years as a Field Engineer installing PV as a backup power for remote telecommunications facilities, i.e., cell sites, microwave repeater sites, etc., has shown something quite different. I've installed literally hundreds of PV arrays, inverters and associated battery arrays. Here are some of the things I've found the people pushing this crap won't tell you: The power output of silicon PV declines over time, Eventually the decline becomes parabolic. The voltage output becomes so small it's useless. PV panels are very sensitive to lightning and hail. As such, most panels do not make it to their projected life expectancy. Then, there are dust issues, particularly in desert environments, which lowers the output. 5-8 years lifetime is average. Remove subsidies like Germany did and let's see how good they are:

http://www.forbes...ploding/
Cocoa
1.8 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2013
Skin Effect - do you not think that the reduction in power output of solar panels is a well understood issue? Most information I can find says the drop about .5% per year - which is why manufacturers are willing to warranty them for 20 to 25 years. Here is one article on the subject - http://howsolarwo...ls-last/

If sand is such a big problem - i guess the Saudis have just wasted a $100 billion investment. Here is a good article you might want to read - http://www.forbes...-in-oil/
Skin Effect
2.2 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2013
Lighting and hail damage is not covered by any manufacturer's warranty I've ever seen and I've handled panels from pretty much every major PV manufacturer. BTW, I and my crew installed PV in Saudi in 1995 as back up power on about two dozen transmission sites for a microwave network we (my company) also installed for a Saudi oil concern. I heard the PV arrays were pulled out about three years later because all of the panels had failed. We were offered the contract to remove it, but we were busy in Brazil at the time. It was thought that the extreme heat in the Saudi desert (Where 130F is not uncommon) was the culprit that killed the panels, although I never heard a definitive answer. If you want the real poop on PV talk to the people who are actually working with this stuff, rather than listening to the "green" crowd in the media or the people trying to sell this junk.
Cocoa
1 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2013
Skin Effect - are you suggesting the Saudis are stupid - and have not thought through their $100 billion investment - or do they maybe know something you do not? Here in the U.S. - almost 4 GW of solar panels were installed in 2013. http://cleantechn...er-2013/

Are all of those installations doomed to fail?

I have a good friend who installs solar (commercial and residential) for a living. He is very excited about the whole market at this point. Did you read the article I linked on the 40 year old panels that are still producing? Maybe you should review your installation procedures!
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2013
Skin Effect - are you suggesting the Saudis are stupid - and have not thought through their $100 billion investment - or do they maybe know something you do not?


Do you know what a publicity stunt is? PR campaign? Do you live on a planet called Earth? Blue, third one from it's star?
Cocoa
1 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2013
Do you know what a publicity stunt is?

Pretty expensive publicity stunt - I would say it is more likely that the engineers know more than you do. Time will tell right?. The projects have already started.

http://www.constr...H8bQuPH0
kochevnik
1 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2013
@SkinEffect If you want the real poop on PV talk to the people who are actually working with this stuff, rather than listening to the "green" crowd in the media or the people trying to sell this junk.
If you made your livelihood selling PV and yet claim that it is garbage, then what are we to think of your character? You were obviously doing it for the money, while defrauding and stealing from clients. If that is the case, why should we think you are to be trusted about your assessments of PV?
Skin Effect
1 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2013
Mighty sure of yourself, aren't you kochevnik? You use some pretty strong words for something you demonstrated you know nothing about. For the record, I have defrauded no one, but I know how easy it is for you to make such outlandish and childish statements while hiding behind your computer screen.

My company installs, tests and commissions telecommunications infrastructure. We do not sell PV or recommend equipment. A part of those efforts sometimes includes the installation of backup power devices, like PV, generators and small wind turbines. We don't recommend anything. We generally do not have a say in what equipment is chosen. We install what we are contracted to install. I merely reported what I and my staff have experienced after having installed and maintained hundreds of PV arrays as backup power to remote telecommunications facilities. Sorry if that bursts your PV bubble, but it is what it is.

"When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser." - Socrates
Cocoa
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2013
Skin Effect - putting the anecdotal, and personal stuff aside - as someone working in the industry - what is your understanding of the current life expectancy of solar panels - hopefully based on research data - not just individual experience?
Skin Effect
3 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2013
What better "research data" is there than 25+ years of actual field experience? We've installed panels from at least a half dozen different manufacturers in a wide variety of environments and we see the same failure rates. As someone up thread said "there are panels that are 40 years old that are still producing". So what? Is it a usable voltage level? Do you understand the concept of how arrays are tied together to generate a specific voltage? Do you realize the voltage PV panels generate decreases over time and eventually the voltage produced falls in a parabolic curve? Do you understand what this lower output does to the balance of battery array? Do you understand what happens when the panel voltage falls below the battery array voltage? No? Well, there's a whole lot of armchair quarterbacking going on, isn't there? I know what the manufacturer's say and I know what we've experienced. Who am I supposed to believe? The people trying to sell this junk, or my lying eyes?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2013
Do you realize the voltage PV panels generate decreases over time

Erm: The voltage is fixed. It's a function of valence conduction bandgap which is a material constant (i.e. only dependent on the atoms you use to make your solar cell).
Power drops because the material ages (resistance increases, solar panels get dirty, ... )
kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2013
We install what we are contracted to install. I merely reported what I and my staff have experienced after having installed and maintained hundreds of PV arrays as backup power to remote telecommunications facilities. Sorry if that bursts your PV bubble, but it is what it is.
Oh so it is not that you ENJOY installing PV to make money, but your are UNDER ORDERS to install PV and pocket the money. You are caught up in events beyond your control and the only moral compensation is pocketing the cash from these bad decisions.

And of course you know how all varieties of PV including new technologies still being developed in the lab and those still in the brains of engineers. You know everything will fail because you did installations 25 years ago. Thanks for sharing your godlike wisdom upon us
RAL
1 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2013
The economic viability of Unicorn Dung "solutions" is demonstrated by the ongoing need for massive subsidies from our bankrupt government. The main reason for "growth" is that we are now pouring more money down the drain.
Cocoa
5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2013
Skin effect: "What better "research data" is there than 25+ years of actual field experience?" I would say there are a lot of better ways to evaluate the life expectancy of solar panels. There are dozens of different manufacturers, and gigawatts of panels have been installed over the past 40 years or so. Here is an interesting article on the current warranties offered by several of the big manufacturers. It looks to me as if your personal experience is very different than that of the majority of the world. This is why I asked for research data - rather than anecdotal.

http://cazeaultso...ow-long/
Cocoa
not rated yet Dec 14, 2013
RAL - "The main reason for "growth" is that we are now pouring more money down the drain."

Those subsidies are creating vibrant industries that are going to power our world as we progress - just like the subsidies for the oil, gas,and nuclear industries - that continue to this day. Solar and wind are now right at grid parity, and there is still a lot of room for cost reductions. Governments around the world have understood the need, and the potential for these industries. Even folks in the U.S. Tea Party see the potential. http://www.renewa...or-solar
kochevnik
not rated yet Dec 14, 2013
The economic viability of Unicorn Dung "solutions" is demonstrated by the ongoing need for massive subsidies from our bankrupt government. The main reason for "growth" is that we are now pouring more money down the drain.
So RAL you think the US $8trillion wasted patrolling and murdering in the gulf was a better investment?
Skin Effect
1 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2013
How about you address some of the specific questions I posed in regard to panel configuration, battery balance and declining panel performance, Cocoa? Could it be that you don't have a clue what you're talking about? Perhaps you need to spend some time with a nifty little ditty written in 1827 called "Ohm's Law". Please note, it's called "Ohm's Law" because it's not a suggestion. You simply cannot lose energy on every installation and expect to make it up in volume.

Real innovations that work, like the airplane or the automobile, didn't require government subsidies. Let the market decide what works and what doesn't. Siemens and Bosche were two of the biggest players in PV and they're both pulling out after losing billions. Oh and if you think it's cheap Chinese panels flooding the market that are causing the Germans to pull out you might want get Porche, Mercedes, BMW and Audi on the phone and let them know that they won't be able to sell higher priced products on the world market
kochevnik
not rated yet Dec 15, 2013
Real innovations that work, like the airplane or the automobile, didn't require government subsidies
Those are both massively subsidized industries. Did you hear about GM being "too big to fail?" Do you think airports build themselves?
Cocoa
not rated yet Dec 15, 2013
"Could it be that you don't have a clue what you're talking about? "

It certainly could - I have never installed a panel myself - and my knowledge is all from reading - and talking to people who have installed panels themselves. Some folks I know live totally off the grid - and run totally on solar panels and lead acid batteries - they report many years of trouble free service.

Being that you are unwilling to answer the basic question - I will go ahead. The overall experience of the solar panel industry is that the panels have a life expectancy of at least 25 years - and many panels have been operating for 40 years - with an overall degradation rate of around .5% per year. This is why most major panel manufacturers are warrantying their panels for 25 years - with a guarantee of 80% power output at that point. Power from solar panels is at grid parity in many parts of the world - and the costs will continue to fall.
Skin Effect
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013
kochevnik, as an avid pilot of more than 34 years, as well as the owner of two airplane and a private airport, I know exactly how public airports are funded. Airports are funded through the high taxes we pay for aviation fuel. 100LL is currently running about $5.50/gallon at the cheapest in my area. Most places are over $6/gallon.

.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2013
kochevnik, as an avid pilot of more than 34 years, as well as the owner of two airplane and a private airport, I know exactly how public airports are funded
What makes you think that owning small airplanes and a private airport makes you an expert on public airport financing? Have you ever been involved in public airport financing?
Airports are funded through the high taxes we pay for aviation fuel. 100LL is currently running about $5.50/gallon at the cheapest in my area. Most places are over $6/gallon
What makes you think that fuel taxes can be earmarked specifically for public airport 'funding'?
Skin Effect
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013
Cocoa, there are several problems with what you claim. Once again, you need to study Ohm's law. You claim the "overall experience of the solar power industry is...", but the only information you provide is either from manufacturers who are trying to sell this stuff or from the giddy reporters who repeat the snake oil claims. What you don't seem to realize is the problems a 25% in power output reduction in the output voltage after only 5 years causes. And, damage from hail, lightning, heat and other environmental causes are not covered by any manufacturer's warranty I've ever seen. Warranties cover materials and workmanship. If you have information that is different, please post it. And where do you get this notion that "solar panels are at grid parity in many parts of the world"? The inefficiencies of the panels and the inverters needed to tie PV to the grid make each installation a net loss, not a gain. As far as the Saudis wasting money, you need to go there. It'll blow your mind.
Skin Effect
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013
As a matter of fact, yes. I was asked and serve on an airport board for a local municipality. I fully understand how public airports acquire financing. I didn't say fuel taxes were earmarked for public airport funding. I said public airports are paid for by fuel taxes. Private and commercial fuel taxes pay quite a bit more than what is returned to the industry in the form of grants. People involved in airport management fight this battle all the time.
Skin Effect
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013
Do you realize the voltage PV panels generate decreases over time

Erm: The voltage is fixed. It's a function of valence conduction bandgap which is a material constant (i.e. only dependent on the atoms you use to make your solar cell).
Power drops because the material ages (resistance increases, solar panels get dirty, ... )


Um, not exactly. Once again, Ohm's law. R=V/I. The voltage is not fixed as the internal resistance increases. The same is true of a battery. As the internal resistance rises the output voltage falls proportionately. It's Ohm's LAW for a reason. It's not a suggestion.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2013
As a matter of fact, yes. I was asked and serve on an airport board for a local municipality. I fully understand how public airports acquire financing
Sorry but this is still not evidence that you know anything at all about how commercial airport construction projects are funded.
I didn't say fuel taxes were earmarked for public airport funding. I said public airports are paid for by fuel taxes.
And I am saying that they are paid for by income tax which provides far more revenue than sales tax on aviation fuel.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2013
For example, a new terminal at KCI

"Financing
Construction of the single terminal is budgeted at $1.2 billion for construction, plus financing costs to be determined at the time of issuance. The costs will be paid for through a combination of federal grants, passenger facility charges and revenue bonds"

-And I did find this

"The Airport Improvement Program is a United States federal grant program that provides funds to airports to help improve safety and efficiency. Improvement projects relate to runways, taxiways, ramps, lighting, signage, weather stations, NAVAIDs, land acquisition, and some areas of planning. The money is raised through taxes on airplane tickets sold to the public and a tax on aviation fuel."

-So had you done some research instead of relying on your 'credentials' you could have said that fuel taxes WERE earmarked. Although it still doesn't tell us where funding for greensite projects comes from.
Skin Effect
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2013
TheGhostofOtto1923, I didn't say "Commercial airports" I said "Public Airports". I am OBVIOUSLY speaking of General Aviation. I don't own a 2 airplane airline for crying out loud. Perhaps you should actually take the time to read what I wrote before you respond instead of responding to you think I wrote. I'm curious, why do you feel the need to respond with such hostility?
Skin Effect
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013
Thanks for sharing your godlike wisdom upon us


It's not "God-like wisdom", sir. It's usually referred to as "experience". Do you think every carpenter agrees with the floor plan of every house they build? Do you think every doctor likes every procedure they are asked to perform? Do you think every college professor agrees with every subject they are employed to teach? If you do you should come up out of mommies basement and visit the real world sometime. BTW, wrt all these "new designs" that are floating around in the the brains of Engineers (like me) you can't change the laws of physics anymore than you can change Ohm's Law. I suppose you missed the part where I specifically referenced and limited my comments to silicon crystalline PV?
Cocoa
not rated yet Dec 16, 2013

Skin Effect "And where do you get this notion that "solar panels are at grid parity in many parts of the world"?"

From many articles that I have been reading over the past months. Here is an example -

http://thinkprogr...in-2014/

I think at this point Skin Effect - it is fine for us to agree to disagree. If you looked at a graph of the cost of solar over the past 50 years, and the amount of solar being installed globally - (easy to find on the internet) - I think most rational people would agree that counter to your disparagement of the technology - it is actually thriving - and represents one of the cornerstones of the worlds energy future. Time will tell - although I think we are seeing that part of history unfold as we write.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 16, 2013
Perhaps you should actually take the time to read what I wrote
Well I read
avid pilot of more than 34 years, as well as the owner of two airplane and a private airport
-and:
I was asked and serve on an airport board for a local municipality
-which was supposed to convince me that
I fully understand how public airports acquire financing
-However you then said:
I didn't say fuel taxes were earmarked for public airport funding
...which, with only a little research, we find that they ARE.

In real life my name is dulles and I own a major airport in DC. I think that based on this I know what I am talking about. But since this is the internet where everyone is full of shit, I prefer to use references whenever possible instead of using my airport with all of its big planes as evidence for my authority on the subject of airport financing.