Monday, May 10, 2010

Harvesting Solar Energy

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster - 200,000 gallons a day - that currently threatens America’s coastline from Louisiana to Florida and the livelihood of millions is a wake-up call for developing clean and renewable energy sources. The havoc the spill is wreaking on the environment will pale in comparison to the havoc that continued dependence on fossil fuel can wreak on the nation’s economy and security.

Of all the renewable energy sources, solar energy is drawing the most attention for its potential to wean America from its addiction to oil. Solar technologies use the sun's energy to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling, for homes, businesses, and industry. But while their environmental impact is minimal, their cost is the great drawback.

Although sunlight is abundant and free, solar cells and the equipment needed to convert their direct-current output to alternating current (panels, inverter, charge controller, storage batteries) is expensive. Electricity generated by solar cells currently stands at about $4 per watt for full installation, more than twice as expensive as electricity from fossil fuels. Also, solar cells can operate only during daylight hours. In contrast, a coal or natural gas plant can run around the clock, which means the cost for building the plant can be spread over many more hours of use. Only when the solar cost comes down to about $1 per watt will large-scale adoption become a reality. Unfortunately that can take anywhere from 10-15 years, unless the urgency is translated into national policy.

America’s technology companies spend between 5-15% of revenue on research and development while energy companies spend only one-quarter of 1 percent on renewable energy R&D. To put the figures in global perspective, the U.S. spends a little more than $18 billion on research and investment in clean energy while China spends more than $34 billion.

The result? In 1999, China made 1 percent of the world’s solar panels; by 2008 it was the world’s leading producer, with a 32 percent market share, and its solar-panel exports were valued at $15 billion.

Still, nothing can justify the fact that solar energy currently provides less than 1% of U.S. energy needs. Oil accounts for a whopping 37.1% while all renewables combined – hydroelectric, biomass, solar and wind – contribute a mere 4% The rest comes from coal, natural gas and nuclear.

President Obama is determined to increase the renewable percentage through new and more efficient solar technologies. By 2012, clean energy must contribute 8% of the nation’s energy needs. So far, the administration is on target.

Particularly in California, the trend is clear. Residential solar installation was 78 megawatts in 2008 but the Golden State installed 220 megawatts of solar electric systems in 2009, followed by New Jersey with 57 and Florida with 36. (One megawatt of electricity can power 750 to 1,000 homes.) California has also created a Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, that requires 20 percent of its power to be obtained from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

China, far more serious on clean energy than the U.S., is on a furious global expansion. A Chinese company called SunTech, the world's largest producer of photovoltaic (PV) cells, has recently opened a subsidiary in San Francisco, and will open a manufacturing plant in Arizona this summer. In 2009, the company sold 65 megawatts in the U.S. The target for 2010 is 200 megawatts.

China’s resolve to become the global leader in clean energy is driven not by its concern for the environment but by its urgent need to create jobs and sustain the rapid rise in the living standard of its people. No business offers more potential to meet these needs than the clean energy business. China will not stop burning coal for the foreseeable future, neither will it stop importing millions of barrels of oil for its power-hungry industries. But the country’s leaders are farsighted enough to know that outspending every other nation in the clean energy sector is critical to its economic ascendancy.

The U.S. is aware of the Chinese priority but is not as focused as its rival on clean energy, mostly because of partisan politics. In spite of the offshore rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many Americans still sway to the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

But change is coming. Americans are switching careers to become renewable energy entrepreneurs. In San Jose, California, for example, an institute called Workforce offers solar training to people eager to get into the clean energy business. Along with classes on solar engineering fundamentals, they get hands-on training on solar system installations. Here’s an example of a photovoltaic system sizing calculation that is part of California’s solar installation certification test: Suppose the annual electric usage of a household is 9,125 kWh (Kilowatt-hour). If 50% of power is to be generated from a PV system with 70% efficiency, and if there are 5.5 sun-hours per day, and if the rating of a PV module is 150 watt, how many PV modules will be needed?

As a consultant to Workforce, I have seen firsthand how the excellent solar curriculum and hands-on training have enabled some students to launch their own solar service businesses while others were snapped up by local solar companies.

The Nobel Peace-laureate and conservation icon Al Gore wrote that the time will soon come for "21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth."

No question about it: we must transform the solar challenge into clean energy opportunities for all.

No comments: