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Can the U.S. Jump Back into the Solar Race?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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BOSTON—Back in 1995, when the global market for solar panels was small, the U.S. shipped more than 40 percent of the world’s photovoltaic modules, which produce electricity from light. Today the number is closer to 4 percent.

As China, Taiwan, Europe and Japan have dramatically stepped up production of photovoltaics, American companies have not kept pace with a growing industry. But the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is not throwing in the towel. The DOE’s SunShot initiative aims to revive the U.S. solar industry to create green jobs, and drive down prices in the process so that solar can compete with fossil-fuel energy sources.

“The first premise is the fact that we want to have subsidy-free solar electricity,” SunShot director Ramamoorthy Ramesh said here this week at a meeting of the American Physical Society. SunShot, he said, aims to drop the price of solar power by about 75 percent by 2020, bringing down the purchase and installation costs of solar arrays to about $1 per watt. “These are very lofty goals,” Ramesh acknowledged. “It’s very difficult to do this.”

From the name on down, SunShot is meant to evoke the moon shots of the 1960s and 1970s, and like the Apollo program it stems from a presidential directive to solve difficult problems in science and technology. (With about $300 million a year in federal funding, however, SunShot is small potatoes compared to the Apollo program.)

One major challenge is boosting the efficiency of solar collection: most varieties of photovoltaic cells in production work at only about half their theoretically attainable efficiency levels. SunShot, Ramesh said, is targeting an efficiency of 23 percent for thin film photovoltaics based on cadmium telluride, close to their theoretical maximum of 29 percent. “We call that now the Michael Jordan program,” he said, in homage to the legendary basketball player’s jersey number (23) in his first stint with the Chicago Bulls. The initiative also invests in nascent solar companies, acting as an incubator for small businesses and entrepreneurs looking to bring disruptive new technologies to market.

But physics and engineering alone cannot bring solar energy to the masses. Expenditures such as installation and permitting, known in the industry as balance-of-system costs, run nearly as much as the photovoltaic modules themselves. The problem is compounded by the numerous nested jurisdictions in the U.S., where a potential solar buyer may have to contend with overlapping local and state laws—along with paperwork from each—that affect the solar installation. Interfacing with the local utility adds an extra layer of complexity. My colleague George Musser has written extensively about the head-spinning bureaucratic complications he has encountered in installing solar panels on his New Jersey roof.

According to Ramesh that is not the case in Germany, far and away the world leader in solar power adoption. In 2009 that nation had six times as much installed solar capacity as the U.S. does. “In Germany it’s a single set of papers, four or five pages,” Ramesh said. “It’s a very quick process.” If solar energy is to reach the dollar-a-watt level in the U.S., the balance-of-system costs will have to shrink to a fraction of their present-day levels. That means not only technological advances that make solar panels easier to install and connect to the grid but also broad procedural changes across government agencies. “It’s a very tough beast to kill,” Ramesh acknowledged.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sjn 10:39 pm 02/29/2012

    Spot on!!! Again and again, Germany, China and our other competitors have been able to surpass the US on green energy & other advanced technologies because they approach energy efficiency at the national level.

    Again and again, the US leads in innovation and fails in market penetration because of the state by state (or as noted above, city by city) approach to building codes, energy policy etc.

    Unfortunately it will never happen in the US as long as we allow the GOP to froth at the mouth about the Federal gov’t as the ultimate devil, to be exorcised and destroyed. The US will continue to lose any relevant position in all key 21st century technologies (other than weapons of mass destruction, such as the recent Sci Am articles on more money going to nonsense like electromagnetic rail guns) while our competitors (China, Europe) keep prioritizing national policies to build these technology leads.

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  2. 2. mspazzo 3:03 am 03/1/2012

    “In Germany it’s a single set of papers, four or five pages,” Ramesh said. “It’s a very quick process.”

    This is absolutely wrong. I am from Germany and I have had a solar panel installed recently and also know about friends who have done that in the last years. This is NOT a single set of papers. This is not “four or five pages”. No way. As a private person you nearly can’t do this without hiring a tax consultant. It’s major paper work. Not only at the time you install this, but EVERY year when you do your tax declarations. That’s not all. Ramesh has no idea. But I won’t go into details here. If anyone’s interested, I might.

    One more thing. Although Germany has the most solar panels installed and the government highly subsidized installing solar panels in recent years, and therefore subsidized German solar industry: The German solar industry is dead now. 80% or so of the solar panels installed in 2010 were produced in China.

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  3. 3. Carlyle 6:17 am 03/1/2012

    There is nothing like a reality check from someone who has first hand local knowledge.
    False claims such as those in the article are the stock in trade for the whole industry.

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  4. 4. sauIt 8:37 am 03/1/2012

    Maybe if we here in the US recognized reality and finally disposed of outmoded notions such as right-wing Conservative and religious nut promoted state lines, and the old, tattered and completely irrelevant document (the Constitution) that recognizes them, we could move forward as a country. Only when we adopt top-down economic efficiencies, helped in part by co-opting the “one percent” and relieving them of their ill-gotten gains, can we normalize wages and make them competitive with those in China.

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  5. 5. Matthias 9:25 am 03/1/2012

    23%? Is that all? Why even have this Sunshot program and waste $300 M when a U of Texas research already has 44% in his lab using pentacene plastic on the cheap. Goal is as close to 66% (max theoretical) as possible.,0,3897047.story

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  6. 6. Tony_Who 9:55 am 03/1/2012

    2009 Article:

    “Applied Materials Moves Solar Expertise to China”

    “The world’s biggest supplier of solar-manufacturing equipment…”


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  7. 7. alan6302 12:58 pm 03/1/2012

    I sure hope the Rossi E-Cat is true. If it is true ,I hope it survives suppression.

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  8. 8. timbo555 1:35 pm 03/1/2012

    Sault, you think like a Soviet Central Planner. But of course, that system only lasted seventy years and killed only thirty-plus million people, so, how bad could it be, am I right? It sounds like heaven compare to the misery we have here in the Unites STATES of America.

    Co-opting the one percent (ie Capitalism) is the one true way to destroy wealth in this country. Removing the Federalist system and doing away with the Constitution is the shortest way to tyranny that I can think of.

    Solar power will have a part to play in supplying our country’s need in the future, but not yet. Subsidizing failure as a means by which to bootstrap our way to energy independence is insanity writ large across the political landscape. Government produces nothing. Government creates nothing. Nothing except large, unwieldy beauracracies that are starving for an ever greater percentage of our GDP. It’s looking like 1:1 today. We are headed towards bankrupcy as a nation PRECICELY Because of GOVERNMENT, not Capitalism.

    Every thing we touch throughout our day is wealth. It is wealth created by others who often go unsung and unappreciated. The mere money that those “rich fat-cat one percenters” control is a pittance compared to the relative comfort in which I live; in which all of us live.

    Adopt top down economic efficiences and I guarantee that within your lifetime we will all be standing in a two hour line waiting for toilet paper. That’s what top-down effeciencies have provided the world in the past, and it is what they are headed towards in this country in the present. I can’t wait, can you?

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  9. 9. sault 1:51 pm 03/1/2012

    What the hell! Somebody keeps HACKING MY ACCOUNT! And I KNOW it’s a STUPID science denier because they are trying to make me look like the illusion of what they think their opponents think like. Well, now I know you guys are down to the most despicable and cowardly tactics because manning up and debating the facts are beyond your abilities!

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  10. 10. timbo555 2:20 pm 03/1/2012

    Yes, we are all science deniers because we don’t agree with you. So I’m guessing from your tantrum above that you didn’t write what was written in your name above the above. I hope you get to the bottom of this, because you’re right; falsifying data is despicable….

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  11. 11. Carlyle 2:57 pm 03/1/2012

    9. sault
    Oh the irony.

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  12. 12. sault 6:51 am 03/2/2012

    11. Carlyle

    How so?

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