Solar Continued Exponential Growth in 2012, But Politics May Stymie Growth

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PV solar panels

At any given moment, the sun bathes the earth in enough solar energy to meet its power needs 10,000 times over. The challenge lies in capturing and converting that energy into usable electricity. And, for the time being, an international tangle of politics and prices also complicates matters.

Solar power represents a tiny fraction of the total power used globally, but its use has been growing exponentially in recent years. That trend continued in 2012, according to recently released analyses from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and Earth Policy Institute.

In the United States, solar energy installations increased by 80 percent in 2012, gaining roughly 3.3 gigawatts of capacity. Utilities have added much of the new capacity, showing mainstream buy-in to the cleaner energy source.

Globally, solar power grew by roughly half in 2012, as 31 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic power were installed. More capacity was added than in any previous year, and total gigawatts exceeded 100 for the first time.

Falling prices on solar equipment, which represent most of the cost of solar projects, have driven adoption. The average cost of a completed PV system dropped by more than 25 percent in 2012; since the beginning of 2011, prices have fallen by more than half.

world-cumulative-solar-pv-installations-epiaFalling prices and exponential growth curves suggest that solar power may eventually compete with traditional fossil fuel energy sources. But in the short term, governments could push prices back up as they roll back subsidies and tack on tariffs.

Germany, the country with more solar power than any other, has built its solar arsenal thanks, largely, to tax incentives. (It’s a small arsenal: Even the world solar leader gets just 5 percent of its power from the sun, according to Earth Policy Institute.) Italy has similar incentives. Yet both countries are rolling the subsidies back, which could slow the rate of solar adoption in Europe.

The “made in China” issue has been the biggest political struggle over solar power in recent years. China — which now makes 60 percent of all photovoltaic, or PV, equipment — has extended generous state help to its manufacturers, leading them to offer a glut of low-priced equipment on the international market.

Both Europe and the United States have accused China of “dumping,” as their manufacturers have struggled to compete.

“The PV space is getting better, but the reason has a little to do with technology but a lot more to do with the giant factories in China. They’re building at an unprecedented scale,” Gregg Marinyak, Singularity University’s chairman of energy and environmental systems, told Singularity Hub.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, “The sharp fall in prices, due in part to a global oversupply, has put a serious strain on solar manufacturers worldwide.”

PV equipment production did indeed shrink, by 2 percent, for the first time ever in 2012. Still, the dip in manufacturing won’t last in the face of continued demand for solar, according to EPI.

But U.S. manufacturers have been vocal about what they see as unfair competition from China. Lower prices are good for consumers, but if they dip down too close to production costs, they make homegrown manufacturers unhappy.

In May, the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels, bumping up the price U.S. consumers pay. (Europe also required China to charge higher prices for solar panels it sells there.) In response, the Chinese subsequently imposed tariffs on imports of U.S. polysilicon, an ingredient in the dominant commercial type of photovoltaic modules, crystalline silicon.

The tariffs could, at least in the short term, slow the U.S.’s move to cleaner energy, according to Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute of International Economics.

“It will make solar panels more expensive to anybody who wants to install them here. I mean, as a policy to slow down renewable energy, this is great,” Hufbauer said in a podcast.

solar thermal installation

But solar power is a rapidly changing industry, and industry players continue striving to make their products cheaper and better in order to drive widespread adoption.

“These are short term effects,” Marinyak said of the price wars. “And there are some technical things that could really, really help the adoption of large-scale solar.”

For example, solar thermal energy setups, which use the heat rather than the light of the sun to produce energy, are gaining traction in the United States and Spain. And any improvements to how utilities can store energy for later use would dramatically sweeten the pot for the major players to use more solar power.

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 5 Responses

  • Ver Greeneyes August 18, 2013 on 10:13 am

    “For example, solar thermal energy setups, which use the heat rather than the light of the sun to produce energy,” – in other words, infrared light 😉 A combination might work well here – solar panels that are opaque to visible light, but transparent in the infrared, so that the infrared portion can heat up an underlying container.

  • ChrisJannette August 18, 2013 on 1:13 pm

    I’m more interested in localized fuel cells tbh.

    • Scrove ChrisJannette August 18, 2013 on 6:20 pm

      I’d rather they all move forward, we need better ways to store energy over long term, better ways to collect the energy and more efficient ways of using it. We need all three rather than just one.

  • dobermanmacleod August 18, 2013 on 9:14 pm

    Who cares about solar? It is obsolete. LENR is clean, very very cheap (according to it will make energy “too cheap to meter”), and super abundant. Using nickel and hydrogen, there is no nuclear material in or out. It will be hitting the market this year. Here is a primer:

    Check out this third-party verification of a LENR reactor that will soon hit the market:
    “Given the deliberately conservative choices made in performing the measurement, we can reasonably state that the E-Cat HT is a non-conventional source of energy which lies between conventional chemical sources of energy and nuclear ones.” (i.e. about five orders of magnitude more energy dense than gasoline, and a COP of almost 6).

    This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers:

    “Over 2 decades with over 100 experiments worldwide indicate LENR is real, much greater than chemical…” –Dennis M. Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center

    “Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.” –Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

    By the way, here is a survey of some of the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization:

    For those who still aren’t convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence:

  • Farmer Giles August 29, 2013 on 9:49 pm

    “Falling prices and exponential growth curves suggest that solar power may eventually compete with traditional fossil fuel energy sources.”

    Here’s what I would like to read more exposure of in articles which compare emerging tech, such as solar power or electric cars, to established tech like fossil fuels. Most of these articles quite correctly point out that government subsidies deflate the price of many alternative choices. What they omit are the staggering subsidies that oil, gas and coal companies also receive.

    Energy companies effectively pay no taxes. They are provided a largely government funded infrastructure with which to distribute their products. Lawmakers frequently and unabashedly write laws that are favorable to established industry and others that undercut competitors. Regulatory agencies are usually staffed by former industry people and government insiders. Any environmental impact of large energy companies’ operations usually must be absorbed by the individuals and communities around the world to whom these companies sell.

    All of this, and yet I don’t think even this covers it. How about the widely known, but often ignored fact that the U.S. and U.K. militaries have been errand boys for the oil industry for two decades?

    Oh, and then there is this:

    Look, people need oil. I don’t fault governments for giving their people what they want and need (in the past). But can we just admit, at least on techy sites like this one, that if we take ALL the subsidies off the table, then alternative energies are already very competitive with traditional fuel sources and in my opinion far better.