Solar energy is nothing if not abundant: In fact, the amount of solar energy that reaches the United States each year is 3,900 times our power needs, according to the Pew Center on the Global Climate Change. But although it powers every kind of life on earth, harnessing the sun to feed modern human energy needs has proven tricky. Luckily, the photovoltaic industry is changing rapidly. At a recent conference called the Solar Market Outlook: A Day of Data, speakers laid out the issues with the business of solar.
Hosted by the Prometheus Institute and Greentech Media, the event took place in lower Manhattan at the Jewish Heritage Museum, which touts a 36-kilowatt building-integrated solar electric system made from silicon wafers recycled from the semiconductor industry. From historical data on supply and demand to forecasts for the global market for PV solutions, the conference drilled down on silicon supply issues, the outlook for the thin-film solar market, Wall Street's take on the business, and emerging concepts in solar-project financing.
Friend of TreeHugger Mar Kelly, a solar energy expert who currently works with MAK Technologies in market development and sales, sent us the following report of highlights from the event. Solar guru and futurist Travis Bradford, founder, president, and director, of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development unveiled his Solar Market Outlook in New York City last week after crunching a year's worth of data. The big surprise was the news from Spain, which has installed enough solar to power more than 40,000 homes. The country's red-hot solar market saw a 300 percent increase from last year. Other hot markets to look out for in 2008 are Italy, Greece, and California.
The data crunch also revealed that, for the first time in a decade, solar-panel supply will outstrip worldwide demand by 43 percent by 2010. That means prices will come down and become more competitive with fossil fuels. How? Solar cells are made from silica (a special type of sand), and refineries that have been revving up for two years are now opening and will begin to provide vast amounts of materials for manufacturers, who have been suffering from lack of raw materials for the past several years.
According to Bradford, small solar manufacturing companies have been going public on a weekly basis during the past year, bringing ever more competition to the manufacturing arena. And here in the U.S. and Europe, the finance community has provided Power Purchase Agreements, or PPAs, to help building owners purchase solar systems by paying their electric bills at a 10 percent discount over a 20 year period. For homeowners in the City of Berkley, Calif., for example, the city will purchase solar electric systems up front; individuals then make quarterly payments along with their tax bills to the city back over time. It may sound like the perfect storm—but keep reading!
By 2011, there are going to be clear winners and losers in the solar market. Venture capitalists are pouring money into next generation or "thin-film" technologies, where gaseous silicon, copper, or cadmium are "baked" onto glass or even organic plastics. These technologies will be driving prices down even further in the race to beat the dirty technologies in both price and positive environmental attributes. Although it only comprises 10 percent of the current market, under the right conditions, thin-film technology has the potential dominate the solar market in the future.
Most exciting at the conference was the news on the latest solar technologies—in particular, on cutting-edge trough systems known as Concentrating Solar Power, or CSP, and Concentrating Solar Thermal, also called CST systems. When direct, dry sunlight hits the troughs, the solar collectors concentrate it into a single area that boils liquid in order to make steam, which in turn moves turbines to make electricity. Visitors to the Solar Outlook conference got a sneak preview of a 250-page report written by the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, which will be released later this month. The report indictes that the sun in the American Southwest (specifically in Arizona) proves to make the area a worthy location for implementing such technologies. Industry experts interviewed about CSP are saying that these troughs can also be replaced by solar towers, which will make the technology even more efficient. The major advantage of Concentrating Solar Thermal systems is that energy can be stored, meaning we can use the solar power that's generated anytime we need it (unlike most PV power plants, where power can only be used while it being generated during the day), including during times when electricity is most expensive. These technologies, though their installation is limited to the SunBelt, are utility-grade. For this reason, they're starting to get the attention of U.S. energy providers, and could be put online as early as 2010. —Mar Kelly