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HIGH ENERGY PRICES FUEL SOLAR BOOM

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ARKATA, CALIFORNIA, Sep 1 2006 (IPS) - After decades of frustratingly slow growth, rising energy prices are hastening the dawn of a long-heralded solar renaissance, writes Mark Sommer, host of the internationally-syndicated radio programme, A World of Possibilities. Though still outdistanced by the rapid rise of wind power, silicon-based solar technologies are finally becoming sufficiently efficient to be competitive with conventional energy sources, Sommer writes in this article. Industry experts predict that based on recent advances, further improvements in efficiency will continue, but a real breakthrough to widespread use worldwide awaits development of a technology beyond the painstaking silicon-based manufacturing process. Solar advocates argue that in an era of permanent oil decline, if the photovoltaic industry sustains growth averaging 50 percent or more per year for the next two decades, it will contribute as much as 20 percent of the global energy budget. This is an ambitious, even unlikely rate of growth, but it also presumes no significant technological breakthroughs. And given that necessity is the mother of invention, solar energy may yet surprise us all.

After decades of frustratingly slow growth, rising energy prices are hastening the dawn of a long-heralded solar renaissance. Though still outdistanced by the rapid rise of wind power, silicon-based solar technologies are finally becoming sufficiently efficient to be competitive with conventional energy sources — without subsidies and with the cost amortised over 20 years — in regions where electrical power costs customers USD 0.25 or more per kilowatt-hour.

Demand for the refined silicon that is the core component of solar panels, manufactured in just five plants worldwide, has grown so rapidly in the past few years that there is now a two-year lag time in the supply chain. This year for the first time use of silicon in the manufacture of solar equipment exceeds its use for computer microprocessors.

But the full potential of the world’s most plentiful and renewable energy source will not be tapped until a new, less energy-intensive non-silicon based technology is invented. Solar experts say that’s only a matter of time, perhaps as little as five to ten years.

Twenty-five years ago, the manufacture of solar panels was a cottage industry funded on a micro-experimental basis by a few American oil companies (Arco and Exxon among them). Today, solar panels are three times the size they were then and twice as efficient (50 percent more efficient than just five years ago), at a quarter the price they were in the 70s. Efficiencies in their manufacture continue to rise, but individual users have been largely supplanted by institutional and corporate installations. WalMart is installing solar panels at many of its megastores while Costco sells and installs solar equipment for homeowners.

Given that solar depends on sunlight, one might well assume that sunny climes lead the world in the industry’s development. But after an early lead in pioneering the technology in the seventies and eighties, California and the US ceded the industry to Germany and Japan, a strategic blunder that could prove costly in the long run.

While California still leads the US in solar installations, accounting for 80 percent of all American-based solar grid development, ironically it is Germany in sun-starved Central Europe that now leads the world in both manufacturing and installing solar equipment. Unfortunately, those regions with the most sunlight and the greatest need for energy in remote locations, like Africa and India, can least afford it while nations with little sunlight, like Japan, are better able to invest in solar technology.

Spurred on public demand and generous federal subsidies pushed through the Bundestag by a Greens and Social Democratic majority in the nineties, the German solar industry has soared. In just six years, revenues at Conergy, the country’s leading solar manufacturer, have grown a thousand-fold to USD 1 billion/year. Until its termination last year by a newly-elected conservative government (which argued that the industry is now so healthy that it no longer needs them), the federal subsidy enabled ratepayers to receive solar installations on 2 percent interest loans, sell the power generated back to the public utility at 50 euro cents per kw-hr and pay just 12 euro cents per kw-hr for their own use of it. In sun-drenched southern Europe, Italy, Greece and Spain have launched similar programmes but progress is impeded by red tape and a less favourable political climate.

In the birthplace of solar technology, the industry is picking up after decades of stagnation, and industry experts project that the United States will soon become the fastest-growing centre of solar installations as states adopt portfolio standards mandating requirements for renewal energy investment. Yet at USD 36,000 (or about USD 25,000 after tax credits), the cost to a homeowner of investing in a solar system of equivalent yield to the average ratepayer’s electrical use is still beyond the reach of anyone other than a committed and prosperous environmentalist.

Industry experts predict that based on recent advances, further improvements in efficiency will continue, but a real breakthrough to widespread use worldwide awaits development of a technology beyond the painstaking silicon-based manufacturing process. Thin film solar technologies, which have been under development for decades, use less silicon but are a third to half as efficient as conventional solar panels.

Grand visions of the dawning of the solar age have thus far not come into being, and barring a revolutionary non-silicon breakthrough solar technologies are likely remain a growing but still modest portion of the global energy budget. But solar advocates argue that in an era of permanent oil decline, if the photovoltaic industry sustains growth averaging 50 percent or more per year for the next two decades, it will contribute as much as 20 percent of the global energy budget. This is an ambitious, even unlikely rate of growth, but it also presumes no significant technological breakthroughs. And given that necessity is the mother of invention, solar energy may yet surprise us all. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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