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It s Always Sunny In China

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Shibani Joshi, Fox News Business Reporter, explains on Fox & Friends the “dim future” of the U.S. solar industry:

Her argument is that President Obama’s solar subsidies have failed to deliver green jobs. According to Joshi’s research, “one-tenth of one percent of the grid comes from solar power, so you think about the money that has gone in, billions, the output, nothing.” And credit where credit is due, Joshi’s numbers check out. I crunched some quick numbers using the EIA’s Electricity Generating Capacity data and found 1074 MW of rated PV capacity out of a total generating capacity of 1051 GW for the entire U.S. grid, for 0.10 percent. (XLS)

My problem is that I think she is missing the big picture. Again, Joshi: “But the problem is, the solar industry has never proved that it can take the training wheels off of, of, additional funds and run on its own.”

Let’s take a step back and look at the U.S. solar industry in context of the global energy economy. It would be shortsighted to expect only instantaneous returns on investments in the solar industry. The Obama Administration, through its clean energy investment programs, is investing in the long game, in which the United States is competing with the rest of the world to develop clean energy technology that it can sell to the rest of the world. And by the rest of the world, I mean China and other Asian nations. I would expect more from someone with an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

In a recent post, NASA’s Earth Observatory website posted satellite images of solar PV farms in Dunghuang, China, along the old Silk Road:

The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth-Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this series of images showing the installation of solar power panels on the outskirts of Dunhuang in the Gansu province of western China. In 2006 (top image), barren desert dominated, except for the road and a few patches of agricultural fields (lower right). By 2011 (middle image), grids of photovoltaic panels began to appear in large numbers. By 2012 (lower image), thousands of square meters were covered.

China’s State Development & Investment Corporation and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) began construction in the area in August 2009, according to China Daily. Two 10-megawatt (.01 gigawatt) facilities were opened by July 2010, making the site China's first large-scale solar power station.

As of now, not a huge installed capacity. But looking ahead:

Chinese authorities hope to expand the electricity-generating capacity of Dunhuang’s solar farms in the future. The State Council (China’s equivalent of the cabinet) set a goal of increasing Dunhuang’s solar power generating capacity to 1 gigawatt by 2020. For context, China’s total installed solar capacity at the end of 2011 was about 3.1 gigawatts; the United States had 4.4 gigawatts of capacity by the same date.

And the kicker:

Space and sunlight will not be limiting factors to expansion. There are more than 3,500 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) of unused land around Dunhuang, and the area receives about 3,250 hours of sunlight per year.

It’s reasonable to expect that China will be able to expand its solar generation and will want to develop domestic solar technology to make that happen. It would behoove the United States to get out in front.

And it’s already happening, thanks to investment from federal and state governments. There’s a great local success story here in Austin, TX. The University of Texas at Austin has recently installed 226 KW of solar PV on two campus facilities. The $1.1 million projected was funded by the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) and the University’s own Green Fund, which is a self-imposed fee to support sustainability initiatives around campus, the project produces over 350 MWh of electricity annually while saving the University over $33,000 annually.

The best part of the story is that all of the components and workforce used were local to Austin. When the project team solicited bids, it was the local companies that came in cheapest. Meridian Solar designed and installed the array, Ideal Power provided DC to AC converters, Alpha Building Corporation provided construction and project management, Firefly Lighting provided LED lights, and Grid Bot installed electric vehicle chargers.

It’s projects and companies like these that will help the United States develop the world’s clean energy technologies. Simply saying that the industry hasn’t taken off its training wheels and parading Solyndra around misses the point. The point is investing, and investing takes patience and money.

Kudos to Will Oremus at Slate for picking up the story first, and debunking another of Joshi’s claim: that Germany receives more sunlight than America, and therefore is better at solar. OK.

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

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