By Michael D. White
The quest to harness the power of the sun is nothing new.
Greek mythology tells the epic tale of Icarus and his close encounter with Helios, perhaps as much an object lesson in solar power as it is one of hubris.
In the 1830s, British astronomer John Herschel reportedly used a solar oven to cook food during an expedition to Africa, and, some 40 years later, the English scientist William Grylls Adams determined that when a small cell of selenium was simply exposed to sunlight, it produced electricity without heat or any moving parts.
Adams’ discovery, according to one observer was “of the most far-reaching importance,” but almost a century would pass before what we now know as the silicon solar cell was first produced in 1953 by Calvin Fuller and a team of fellow researchers at the AT&T Bell Laboratory in New Jersey.
Three years later, solar cells went on the commercial market, but, while the cost of $300 for a 1 watt solar cell was way beyond the reach of the average consumer, solar cells began to turn up powering toys and radios.
In the decades that followed, more efficient solar cells came to power both in U.S. and Soviet communications satellites, and, with the negative political, social and economic impact of the Solyndra scandal of 2011 fading in the rear view mirror, more affordable solar cells began providing electricity to railroad crossing signals, remote homes and, more recently, everything from the safety lighting on offshore oil rigs to cars, aircraft, fabric panels for heated car seats and even a solar-powered, origami-inspired lantern that unfolds into a cube providing up to eight hours of illumination.
Speaking at a recent forum on the state of the solar industry in Washington, D.C., Jeffrey Ball of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, stated that sights should be calibrated on “a U.S. solar industry that’s viable for the long term….This is not about gigging a U.S. solar industry that may show some real rapid growth for a couple of years and then trail off. That’s not what we would regard as economically efficient. This is about the United States finding an economically efficient place in a growing global solar industry for the long term, fundamentally about comparative advantage.”
In 2015, a 365-page interdisciplinary study of the future of solar energy conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that “solar electricity generation is one of very few low-carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale.”
The primary goal of U.S. solar policy, then, should be to build the foundation for a massive “scale-up of solar generation” over the next few decades”—a “scale up,” it says that has the potential to “generate multi-terawatt scale power.”
A terawatt is equal to one trillion—or one million million—watts of electrical power. By comparison, in 2016, the U.S. had a total installed solar capacity of 42 gigawatts, or enough to provide electrical power to about seven million homes.
Corporate America Recalibrates
U.S. companies, both large and small from retailers to manufacturers, are increasingly turning to the sun to power buildings as the cost of solar panels has declined dramatically in recent years, according to the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).
Over 70 percent of that is supposed to come from large sprawling solar panel farms (called “utility-scale solar”) built in remote regions, and selling power to utilities. In contrast, many of the corporate solar farms are installed on building rooftops.
These corporate solar installations tend to have slightly higher prices than the large utility-scale solar systems, and this sector hasn’t grown as quickly as utility-scale solar or solar panels for homes. But companies are still buying up solar panels in an effort to lower their energy bills, and to be more environmental.
Leading that ‘calibration’ is Corporate America, which “has taken up the solar power standard in a big way with larger companies like Target, Kohl’s, IKEA, Apple and Costco continuing to make huge investments in solar power for their facilities,” says Dan Whitten, SEIA vice president of communications, citing Target as an example.
Late last year, the SEIA issued a report which found that the giant Minneapolis-based retailer had, for the first time, beat out rival Walmart as the country’s leading corporate solar power user.
Target, the report found, had installed almost 70 megawatts of solar panels at its facilities in 2016, bringing its company-wide generating capacity to 147 megawatts of solar panels operating at 300 separate installations.
Walmart, a close second, has 145 megawatts of solar panels at 364 different locations, with the report adding that, every week, some two percent of the U.S. population visits a solar-powered Walmart store. Not to be outdone, Swedish home goods retailer IKEA has installed solar panels at 90 percent of its U.S. facilities that generate more than 40 MW.
‘Dumping’ electricity—shunting excess electricity which is in excess of the needs of an electrical system and can’t be stored or conserved directly to ground—has been a chronic issue facing states such as Texas which has, in the past, had to curtail electricity produced by its emerging wind industry.
“There were years not too long ago when there was close to 20 percent of the wind-generated electricity that was dumped,” says Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance Executive Director, Daniel Reicher. “When he was governor, now Energy Secretary [Rick] Perry, put the state in a very aggressive program to develop over 3,500 miles of transmission lines. And they’re down to one or two percent curtailment in Texas.
Other examples include:
Arizona—The state boasts an impressive 2,303 MW of solar capacity, enough to power 327,000 homes. According to new research conducted by Environment America, Phoenix comes in at number three on the list of cities with the most installed solar PV capacity in the U.S., despite the efforts of utilities and the Arizona Corporation Commission to restrict the use of distributed solar in recent years.
Georgia—The Georgia Public Service Commission has approved a plan by Georgia Power to build a solar power facility just outside Robins Air Force Base. The utility company is leasing the land and will operate the solar facility, providing power to the military base and other customers. The facility will begin operating in late 2019 and utilize more than 500,000 solar panels.
Colorado—In 2015, $305 million was invested into solar projects in Colorado, a 44 percent increase over 2014. That investment helped lead to an additional 144 MW of solar capacity, bringing the state’s total up to 540 MW last year.
Iowa—Allaint Energy has started work on a $10 million project to install more than 15,000 solar panels on a 21-acre site in eastern Iowa, making it the state’s largest solar site. The new solar array on the west side of Dubuque will be able to generate five megawatts of energy in ideal conditions, enough to power over 725 homes. It’s expected to start generating power in August.
American Samoa—Ta’u, the easternmost of the Samoan islands, has just been equipped with a new microgrid composed of more than 5,000 SolarCity solar panels and 60 Tesla Powerpack battery storage systems with 1.4 megawatts of solar-generation capacity and six megawatt hours of battery storage. That’s enough to power the entire 17-square mile island night and day.
Despite its ranking as the nation’s No. 1 solar power generator, California’s solar power generation follows daily and seasonal sunlight patterns, peaking during the long summer days and reaching its annual minimum during the winter.
In a curiously related development, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is urging residents to turn off unneeded lights and unplug appliances during the upcoming August 21 solar eclipse as the event is expected to slash the output of the state’s solar power plants by more than 60 percent.
Solar plant output is predicted to drop from 8.75 gigawatts at the start of the eclipse to 3.14 gigawatts during its peak. Output will then rapidly bounce back up to nine gigawatts at the eclipse’s end in California, at 11:54 a.m.
“If millions of Californians turn off appliances and power strips to unplug from the grid during the eclipse, we can let our hard-working sun take a break,” said Michael Picker, president of the Public Utilities Commission, in a press release.
The state is “increasingly seeing solar curtailment. We’re generating solar a lot in the middle of the day when we, in many cases, least need it,” says Steyer-Taylor’s Reicher. “Think about a March day when it’s not all that warm, no one’s running their air conditioners. The wind is blowing hard, but solar doesn’t blow.”
That vexing situation has led to some interesting technological breakthroughs as several smaller energy companies have begun investigating the possibility of melding both solar and wind power in a single generation source.
One such company is WindSolar, a Southern California-based startup firm that recently received a U.S. patent for the software behind a system that melds both solar and wind energy into a hybrid generator capable of providing energy 24/7 for lighting, powering electronics, heating, cooling, or other uses.
“Solar panel-based systems can only convert the sun’s energy into electricity when the sun is available so they are limited to electricity generation to a few hours each day,” says SolarWind’s Clean Energy Hybrid Systems CEO and inventor, Robert Anselmo.
“To make the most use of the sun’s available time to generate electricity, a greater number of solar panels must be installed. Wind, on the other hand, is generally available 24 hours per day, however, it is an erratic source of natural energy, varying from one minute to the next… it can be steady, intermittent, gusty, calm, weak or powerful,” he says.
Separately, though “both systems are limited in their performance, but when combining them into one integrated system, major advantages and new opportunities exist for generating reliable electricity.”
In another configuration, “the SolarWind Hybrid system will provide heating as well as electricity.”
According to Anselmo, the system is scaleable from large wind or solar farms, either as a new installation or as a retrofit of existing solar or wind sites.
Smaller versions, he adds, are designed for residential, commercial and industrial installations and have mobile, portable, transportable, or permanent configurations usable on land, oceans, either on the surface or even submerged with applications for a variety of uses from disaster relief and temporary housing to military field communications.
Community and Residential Markets
According to Boston-based GTM Research, the U.S. community solar market is expected to reach 410 megawatts in 2017 “following the realization of pent-up demand in states with regulatory and legislative delays.”
Utility-led programs, according to its U.S. Residential Solar Financing 2016-2021 report, “will emerge as a primary driver for the U.S. community solar market as western U.S. markets drive near-term growth with community solar to consistently drive 20 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. non-residential PV market annually through 2021.”
GTM forecasts that customer-owned systems will account for more than half of residential capacity additions in 2017 with that percentage “increasing even more in the years thereafter.”
As more U.S. residential solar customers choose to purchase solar panels rather than lease them, “direct ownership is on its way to overtaking third-party ownership and reclaiming its position as the leading solar financing model for the first time since 2011,” the GTM report says.
More than half —a full 55 percent— of all U.S. residential solar capacity installed next year “will be purchased by customers paying either in cash or with a loan. As customer ownership becomes more popular and local and regional installers gain market share, premium module brands favored in these installations will gain share,” it concluded.
The future is bright and the growth curve, “is impressive,” says the SEIA’s Dan Whitten. “It’s taken us 40 years to get to one million residential installations alone. We expect it will take only about two more years to double that.”
Bio: Michael D. White is a published author with four non-fiction books and well more than 1,700 by-lined articles on international transportation and trade to his credit.
During his 35 year career as a journalist, White has served in positions from contributor and reporter to managing editor for a number of publications including Global Trade Magazine, the Los Angeles Daily Commercial News, Pacific Shipper, the Los Angeles Business Journal, International Business Magazine, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News, Pacific Traffic Magazine, and World Trade Magazine.
He has also served as editor of the CalTrade Report and Pacific Coast Trade websites, North America Public and Media Relations Manager for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and as a consultant to Pace University’s World Trade Institute and the Austrian Trade Commission.
A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, White has traveled in both Japan and China, and earned a degree in journalism from California State University and a Certificate in International Business from the Japanese Ministry of Trade & Industry’s International Institute for Studies & Training in Tokyo.