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Prospects for solar: “It’s like watching the Internet mature in 1995″

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


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Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

I may be one of the few people in my town to have solar power right now, but if the news I’m hearing from the Solar Power International trade show this week is right, a wave of installations is about to sweep the country. I wasn’t able to attend the show — this blog is just a sideline for me and I couldn’t justify a whole trip — but I had a chance to talk with two conference attendees, Mike Caliel, CEO of IES, a big national energy contractor that has gotten heavily involved in renewables, and Harry Fleming, CEO of Acro Energy Technologies, one of the biggest solar installers in California.

Both of them called the show “overwhelming” on account of the huge number of new companies — especially new panel manufacturers, and especially Chinese ones. “These new guys are dragging down the prices for everyone,” Fleming said. A year ago, panels cost $4 a watt, now it’s $2 a watt for brand-name panels and as little as $1.50 a watt for lesser-known manufacturers. With so much new capacity, he said he expects prices to continue to fall.

Meanwhile, the auxiliary equipment and installation have also come down in price, from $4 a watt to $3.50 a watt. Caliel described many of the improvements as low-tech. For instance, simpler mounting systems have reduced labor costs and defect rates. Fleming also spoke of consolidation of installers and therefore greater economies of scale.

Between these two trends, a solar array costs as little as half of what it did a few years ago. It’s still more than the average homeowner is able to fork over, so government subsidies are still needed to nurture the growing industry. But the downward trend lends support to the argument that solar will be competitive with fossil power within a decade, at which point the subsidies can be phased out. The out-of-pocket expense for homeowners is getting low enough that people can sometimes swing the cost without refinancing their houses, and leasing arrangements are becoming more common, too. Whereas the industry’s growth is now limited by demand, Fleming said, it may soon be limited by supply: companies may not be able to keep up with all the people knocking on their doors ready to buy.

“It’s like watching the Internet mature in 1995,” Fleming said. “There will be widespread adoption.”

Of course, he would say that, wouldn’t he. There are still a lot of kinks that need to be worked out. Caliel said that some companies have struggled to hire enough trained people and maintain quality. “There’s been a rush,” he said. My own experience bears this out, although I must admit that my dissatisfaction has lessened somewhat. My system is working as advertised and my installer visited in person last night to apologize for the troubles I’ve had. He described some of the steps the company, 1st Light Energy, has taken to ensure they don’t happen again. I’ll continue to post here what my experiences are. I’m an optimist by nature, but solar may soon get to the point where it appeals even to cynics.

Panels on George’s roof

 





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  1. 1. Soccerdad 9:45 pm 10/29/2009

    Just like watching the internet mature, except that the government didn’t have to bribe people to install it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. wwww 10:50 pm 10/29/2009

    yeah, the govt. only built and developed the entire internet to start with moron.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Soccerdad 11:39 pm 10/29/2009

    The internet is nothing without last mile connectivity – the most costly part – built and funded by private industry supported by people paying their fair share. Taxpayer’s aren’t carrying it like we are solar – the most expensive power found on earth.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Michael Hanlon 11:49 pm 10/29/2009

    Now Al, take it easy. We know you discovered it.
    It’s good to hear that 1st Light has adopted Quality Improvement steps to insure failures do not recur. If you George, are happy with the steps they plan to implement, then future customers owe you thanks.
    One drawback I encountered when planning for wind generation here in Florida near the Gulf Stream and its continual breezes is that the State allowed the power Co. to shift the burden of life insurance for their workers from the Co. to the small guy. I had planned to generate 1kW/hr, of which I would only need usually 300W. To allow the technicians to handle the connection and the hook-up to my home, I would have been required to purchase a multi-million dollar Insurance policy! Imagine, for me to sell them, at a price lower than they charged me in return, $10/mo of e**-1, I would have to support AIG with a few hundred a month. So, I avoid the grid. I advise you to plan extraction in the future too.

    Link to this
  5. 5. youknowimright 11:52 pm 10/29/2009

    Soccerdad, don’t be an inflammatory retard, there’s no reason to besmirch anyone or anything in response to this article.
    On a more positive note, I see any technology that allows people to produce their own energy in a non polluting and sustainable sort of way to be incredibly heartening, and in mind puts us that much closer to true freedom.

    Link to this
  6. 6. hawkeye 12:38 am 10/30/2009

    So what do you propose, Soccerdad? The widespread adoption of solar will be triggered when it becomes cheaper than oil. We can either make that happen sooner, via subsidies, or later, after oil production and reserves decline, the polar ice caps no longer exist, and the ocean has risen several feet.

    Wait – let me guess – you still think global warming is a myth, and petroleum reserves will last forever. Try telling that to the people of the Seychelles Islands and Kiribati.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Forlornehope 10:26 am 10/30/2009

    Just for information – my installation is going in on Monday – 2kWe, which is all that I can fit on the garage roof. The house is thatched and a historic building so I’m not allowed to put panels on it. Provided that I have all the basics in place, loft insulation, low energy lighting, I get 2500 capital grant. In addition there is a "feed-in tariff" of 0.38 per kWh, on top of what the power company pays for the power. I’m not sure that I approve of government meddling in the free market but at 8% plus on my investment I’m not complaining!

    Link to this
  8. 8. gmusser 10:34 am 10/30/2009

    That’s great! I’d love to hear more about your project – contact me offline at gmusser at sciam dot com.

    Link to this
  9. 9. rbloom 12:56 pm 10/30/2009

    It is interesting that people criticize solar power for receiving subsidies but fail to note the large subsidies that go to the coal and oil industry. They receive direct subsidies, tax breaks, government help in exploration, mostly dont pay for environmental damage or the cost of being regulated (without witch the cost of their environmental damage would be much higher think acid mine drainage). Solar power has serious limitations, but PV panels should continue to produce clean electricity for well over thirty years with no mountains of fly ash, no tons of exhaust gases loaded with carbon dioxide (not to mention mercury and radioactive elements), no square miles of reclaimed surface mines, etc!

    Link to this
  10. 10. JoeAgliozzo 4:04 pm 10/30/2009

    Actually prices on panels aren’t coming down because of Chinese competition because most US installers won’t use the panels. What’s driving the price down is the recent slashing of subsidies in Spain and Germany, which caused a lot of projects to be canceled. Also, as is the case in many growing industries, panel manufacturers scaled up big time and overshot demand.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Soccerdad 4:36 pm 10/30/2009

    I guess everyone else here is glad to have money transferred from their wallet to guys like forlonehope and the author through taxes and higher utility rates. Or could it be that they, like about 45% of all adults in the US pay no federal income taxes.

    Personally, I see it as immoral.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Michael Hanlon 12:57 am 10/31/2009

    Taxes and subsidies weren’t part of the Internet Adolescence? It’s still with it. How many mom and pop’s were put out of business by the internet getting a free tax ride? And how about Gov bills that gave advantage to grants which were to go to efforts which incorporated web operations?
    .Mr. Musser, did you purchase your materials on-line and save the taxes?
    .Another point in the PV v Coal debate is periodic maintenance of the using machinery. At a homeowner level, heat production via carbon burning wood stoves or fire places require chimney and other soot removal and disposal with toxic trace metals. With Solar electric you only need to rinse dust off the panels every so often and suceed in washing the environment back into the environment.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Forlornehope 5:18 am 11/3/2009

    I don’t pay federal income tax, because I’m a Brit living in England! However I do pay a great deal of income tax. Typically, for a European, I’m quite happy to pay up for "public goods" like education, healthcare, environmental protection and, yes, defence (see I really am a Brit!) and law enforcement, even though I take out much less than I pay in. It’s called civilisation!

    Link to this
  14. 14. greymase 6:18 pm 11/5/2009

    Try to conceive of taxes as Club Dues. The more you get out of the club, the higher your dues should be. If you use its facilities yourself, and bring in lots of associates (businesses who use the roads, etc., and benefit foreign consumers, for example), you should pay more. That is perfectly moral. That is our graduated tax system. If you are in the club, but hardly use it, you don’t have to pay dues. Or, if you are down on your luck, the club will help you out. And if you don’t like this club – join another.
    I agree, Forlornehope, it is civilized (with a zed, brother, with a zed)!

    Link to this
  15. 15. Wayne Williamson 6:27 pm 11/6/2009

    couple of comments…
    1)what if we put wind mills on the 3400+ oil rigs already in the gulf
    2)do "solar cells" only have to be based on silicon or gallium….what about something non crystal like a salt solution between a couple of condutive glass sheets with a diode to direct the current..

    Link to this
  16. 16. Michael Hanlon 10:35 pm 11/6/2009

    Someone call the Keepers, Wayne’s outside the box again.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Uncle B 8:05 am 11/8/2009

    The Asian fact makes Solar imperative for the American who can afford it! Americans are in general facing collapse, the dollar disrespected in favor of the Yuan world-wide, American goods over-priced, and replaced by Asian products world wide, Cars from Asia sold and loved world wide, not American ones, and Americas resources depleted at home, fields deliberately driven to exhaustion for accountancies ROI equations, not preserved for all time by agriculturalists equations! Goddammit! Oil, pumped to exhaustion, not for economical uses, not to build a powerful nation, but for arrogant waste in fancy cars, low efficiency burners! A come uppance, long over-due will eventually hit America, and in the troughs of the next cyclic economic downturn, soon upon us, the greater depression may hide! Independent lighting from solar and battery storage sources, independent from what can happen with a deflated dollar, and rampant inflation, combined with good gardening practices and some solar-passive heating might relieve some of the suffering during a prolonged depression. Americans appear to be at a crest of good living and plenty, and are facing the rest of the wave, great poverty and scarcity very soon – the price of oil up and rising, Gold at historic highs, real estate still failing, jobs and capital migrating to Asia, to further deepen the trough, and drunkenness, dope addictions and immorality, signs of deprivation are upon us!. Military expenses paid with borrowed money! Breaking the economic backbone of the country! Highways and other infrastructure crumbling away! Detroit City , monument of the times in rubble! SEE: http://uprooted.jessicareeder.com/2009/09/detroit-and-the-100-dollar-house/comment-page-1/#comment-3003 don’t take my word for it! Off-Grid survival of the great depression is a good thing to prepare for! Super-insulate to conserve energy, start a garden, compost, even consider humanure, as the price of fertilizer will be in Yuan, not U.S. dollars, they will be used to stuff cracks in the walls to prevent draughts, like Zimbabwe bucks are used today! Anything Solar is perpetual – you don’t have to eventually buy fuel to keep it going! Wind, Tidal, Wave, Geo-thermal- all same story! perpetual once installed! just like good insulation! These, along with good gardening practices, are life savers in hard times, and we just may be on the cusp of very hard tines in America. After all, somebody has to pay for the New York businessmen and their reckless gambling habits, Iraq, Afghanistan and a myriad of other adventures the Military are up to, and apparently they come first !

    Link to this
  18. 18. denhamphery 2:45 am 04/11/2011

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  19. 19. denhamphery 2:46 am 04/11/2011

    Yes, this is great ..
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    Tubal Ligation Reversal is very safe now ..
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