Even though they admit that the road ahead is fraught with danger and difficulty, industry experts are still confident that the price of solar will be competitive within the next 10 years. When this long-awaited day finally comes, I wonder if the industry will be adequately prepared?

Beyond Solar's Growing Pains The Future Is Bright

Adam King

Even though they admit that the


Reporting on Solar Power 2004
By Adam King

A storm hit the streets of San Francisco on the morning of October 18th, and I was right smack in the middle of it. The city was abuzz with its usual mix of magic and mayhem. From beneath my umbrella, I caught glimpses of homeless people yawning under awnings and mingling amongst themselves; while business suits streamed down the street with briefcases and bagels in-hand.

When I finally arrived at the opening reception of Solar Power 2004, which promised to be the largest business-to-business solar event ever in the United States, I was absolutely drenched. Fortunately, I was not the only one…..enjoying the humor of it all. As I surveyed the room, everyone was dressed in the usual 'business-casual' attire and at first glance, it was impossible to detect any diversity among the group. Yet as morning turned into afternoon, and as afternoon turned into evening, I began to realize that I was in the midst of a real mismatched mosaic of people - made up of bankers and politicians, academics and engineers, manufacturers and installers, buyers and sellers, job-seekers and techno-tweekers. Despite the dizzying diversity among them, it was plain to see that they all shared the same goal: to make solar a mainstream source of power.

As it now stands, the price of producing solar energy is still too high to compete on the all-mighty market with the likes of natural gas. And even though a small minority of people may be willing to pay more for energy that is cleaner and greener, the majority are not. In order to bring to price of solar down - some say we need to develop more efficient technology, while others say we need only increase our production or supply of it. While most of the people I spoke to agree that both steps are equally necessary, the step that echoed loudest among the experts was the need for long-term public policy and financial support from the government. Since private investors are unwilling to bear the financial burden of growing the industry on their own, public policies must be in place to help subsidize solar while it's still in its infancy stage. The outstanding success and continual growth of the solar industries in Japan and Germany, as well as the shocking failure of the solar industry in the Netherlands, are perfect examples of how governmental support and tax incentives can either make or break the success of a solar industry.

Even though they admit that the road ahead is fraught with danger and difficulty, industry experts are still confident that the price of solar will be competitive within the next 10 years. When this long-awaited day finally comes, I wonder if the industry will be adequately prepared? In 2001, there were only about 2000 people employed in the American solar industry, but by 2020, that number is expected to jump to around 150,000 (WWF 2003). Will there be enough qualified professionals to meet the workforce demands? Will there be enough solar system manufacturers and installers to meet the needs of the market?

While there were many different opinions about the future applications of solar, everyone appeared to agree that homebuilding was 'the' target market of the future. In an effort to spark interest in the residential applications of solar, the Department of Energy (DOE) funded the construction of several 'Zero Energy Homes'. By combining solar water and space heating systems with well designed efficiency programs that included fluorescent lighting, the Department of Energy was able to reduce the energy demands (and thus the energy costs) of the homes by over 60%. After the completion of several prototype homes, the Department of Energy turned its efforts towards building entire communities of 'Zero Energy Homes'. The Clarum Community Project, for example, included over 250 'Zero Energy Homes' - all of which sold far faster than anyone had expected. By 2020, the Department of Energy hopes to be building homes and communities that have the ability to produce as much energy as they consume.

By the end of the third day, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was completely overwhelmed with optimism. The momentum behind solar was plain to see - and no one could deny the obvious facts of matter: that Solar was in the best interests of both government and business. By increasing our use of solar (which is renewable and not susceptible to inflation), we effectively reduce our dependence on natural gas (which is non-renewable and susceptible to inflation). Since most public utility companies buy 2/3's of the power they provide, buying solar instead of gas is an undeniably attractive alternative. Thankfully. At last. We're almost past the growing pains. And the future is bright.


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