The U.S. Solar Industry: The Next Four Years

President-elect Trump’s appointments of Scott Pruit, Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson raise serious concerns about the future of the renewable energy industry in this country for at least the next four years. Trump’s own views on climate change and renewables, though they occasionally waiver, are concerning, as well.

I recently published an article on LinkedIn Pulse about what I see as the four critical policy areas that the administration could directly influence that will strengthen or impede the success of the solar industry, specifically. My hypothesis is two-fold:

  1. The new administration will create, repeal or modify policies that will lower the cost of energy production from fossil fuels. This will make the financial case for solar (and wind, for that matter) less compelling relative to natural gas or coal.
  2. Despite that, solar adoption will continue to rise—albeit perhaps more slowly than it would under a different administration—because, for differing reasons, states, cities, utilities, large companies, and consumers still want solar.

I hope you enjoy the article.

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Review: Catching the Sun

The latest solar documentary—this one from filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayyais making the rounds at special screenings nationwide and recently was added to Netflix‘s streaming lineup. I welcome any film that draws attention to renewable energy and climate change, but this film fell short for me.

The thesis of the film is somewhat tired, as well as somewhat misguided: America has an opportunity to be the global leader in solar energy. If we don’t, China will. The lack of sound federal energy policies are holding us back, not to mention the strength of the oil industry lobby. With more solar investment, we could have a country that doesn’t emit carbon and simultaneously creates great jobs.

Let’s break that down. First, the film seems to define “leadership” in solar energy in two parallel ways: the number of utility-scale deployments, and the number of installer jobs.

To say that the U.S. is falling behind in solar—or already has—is a difficult thesis to defend. Among others, the film follows Zhongwei Jiang, the founder of Chinese PV module manufacturer WesTech, who boasts that his firm is supplying modules for utilities not just in China but all over the world—except, presumably, in the United States. His company is growing like gangbusters. But no data is presented about how many utility-scale deployments are happening here without WesTech. The numbers aren’t exactly grim. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association:

  • 4,000 major solar projects are currently in progress, representing over 72 GW of capacity.
  • Over 16 GWac of major solar projects are currently operating.
  • Over 53.3 GW of PV and CSP projects are either under construction or under development.

Those numbers are huge. And if you believe this data set, the U.S. has more solar farms than China but they cumulatively produce less total capacity, thus ranking us #2. But the more interesting point is that China has 44 plants under development, while the U.S. has 345. So the solar growth rate in the U.S. will be higher.

Granted, growth could be much faster with more support from states and the federal government, but the amazing story is that growth is still happening despite the lack of the lack of a coherent national energy policy or pro-growth state-level policies (New Mexico comes to mind). In fairness, the extension of the ITC/PTC is a good federal policy that certainly continues to drive solar adoption.

And let’s not ignore this: China’s population is approximately four times that of the United States. Per capita, the U.S. produces more power from solar than China does. IHS estimates that in 2015 China installed 14.4 GW of solar capacity, whereas the U.S. installed 8.4. GTM Research reported China was actually at 19 GW and the U.S. only at 7. On a proportionate basis, is the U.S. really behind China in solar?

The film also focuses on the potential for solar to create jobs, but limits the discussion to jobs for residential solar installers by focusing on a program in Richmond, CA to train people to become installers. It’s true that approximately half the jobs in the U.S. solar industry are for installers. But what about the other half? There are jobs for people in engineering, sales, supply chain operations, marketing, training, project development and management, and many other areas, too. These aren’t all white collar jobs, either; we need factory workers, electricians, warehouse staff, truck drivers and more, too. And when you get out to large-scale commercial or utility-scale deployments, you need construction crews, maintenance technicians and the like. A vibrant solar industry creates jobs for everyone, at every level. The film misses that. (For a great analysis of where the jobs are, see the National Solar Jobs Census.)

The film also misses another glaring point. Solar adoption in the U.S. would be much higher if it weren’t for the fact that we have some very windy areas. If renewable energy is the goal—not strictly from solar—then the U.S. is arguably a world leader when wind production is factored in. The film completely ignores wind, save for some brief shots of wind farms. It also ignores hydroelectric and even nuclear.

And this takes me to another weakness of the film, which is the positioning of the oil industry as the primary enemy of solar. But what about coal? According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, U.S. utilities generate 33% of their energy from coal and an equal 33% from natural gas. The rest is from nuclear (20%) and renewables (mostly wind). Natural gas won’t disappear completely in the foreseeable future because gas turbines can be spun up quickly when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Put differently, solar and wind can replace coal production—but gas turbines will still be needed until an efficient, more cost-effective means of energy storage is developed.

I hope what most people who are unfamiliar with solar take away from this film is the idea that America would benefit from a federally-driven moonshot program for cleaner energy. That’s actually addressed briefly in the film and was my favorite part. But it’s important to acknowledge that wind and other renewable sources should be part of the mix, not just solar. And, that energy conservation is just as important as clean energy production. I thought it was somewhat ironic that in the film we see several people flying around the world on airplanes and driving in gas-powered cars while promoting clean energy. The same criticism was raised against Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth.

We have a long way to go but I’m far more optimistic about the current reality of renewable energy—not just its future—than the film portrays.

Should You Be Bullish on SolarCity?

On February 11th, I published an article on LinkedIn Pulse in response to SolarCity’s stock price taking a dramatic nosedive. I argued that even though SolarCity fell short of its own guidance on the number of residential solar installations, the company is best positioned to own the residential solar market nationwide, in the long-run.

I still believe that to be true, though one thing I didn’t mention in the article was that I’m skeptical that the leasing model that SolarCity champions will remain their dominant deployment model. Buying an array outright continues to become more compelling as component costs fall and low-cost financing models continue to propagate thanks, in part, to low interest rates.

While some pundits think SolarCity’s valuation is overblown in the face of that tectonic shift, I think it’s shortsighted to assume that SolarCity hasn’t noticed that trend and will pivot appropriately when they feel the time is right. As with any business, the question is always whether the company’s management team “gets it” and has the ability and willingness to change course when necessary. I suspect SolarCity’s executive team does.

If you believe the adoption of residential solar will continue its exponential rise–barring more legislative fiascos as we recently witnessed in New Mexico–then you have to ask yourself, Who other than SolarCity is best positioned to capitalize on it?

The Wrong Solution to Climate Change

I confess I didn’t follow the recent COP 21 climate change conference in Paris closely. But something came out of the conference that simultaneously intrigued, frustrated, and baffled me: several countries will throw billions of more dollars at alternative energy research.

I’m not opposed to more funding for research. On the contrary, I welcome it. But it’s the wrong solution to the problem immediately at hand.

The goal is to stop—or at least slow—the rate of climate change. No one honestly knows whether it can be stopped. I doubt anyone is optimistic that it can be reversed.

The only hope of achieving this goal is to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere. Not eventually. Not gradually. Stop it right now.

This means we need to replace all current energy production methods with sources that don’t burn carbon. The purpose of the mass infusion of research capital is thus to develop those sources.

But wait a minute: we already have them.

Herein lies my frustration. Solar, wind, hydro, and yes, even geothermal and, heck, I’ll throw in nuclear, too, are good enough today to power the entire world. Additional research can make these sources better, faster, and/or cheaper. Great. But research and development takes time—years, sometimes decades—and often the technical improvements it delivers are incremental, not revolutionary. We don’t have that time.

Moreover, given the choice between spending $20 billion on researching better alternative energy sources versus deploying alternative energy sources today using current, proven technologies, I’d take the latter. Again, the issue is time. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for years to see whether new R&D efforts get us from, say, 15% thin-film efficiencies to 25% efficiencies. That would be a fantastic achievement, but let’s deploy the less expensive 20% efficient silicon panels right now while we might still have time to avoid an irreversible global environmental catastrophe.

My point, in short, is that climate change isn’t a technological challenge for which the solution is more R&D. The challenge is a lack of political will, for which the solution is more political will. Politicians are unwilling to make the bold moves that could start moving the needle today. It’s a global problem, but in the U.S., a simple step President Obama could take to show more resolve here would be to make extending, or even increasing, the ITC a top priority. That would cost nothing and have more immediate impact than any government-sponsored R&D projects would. Or, what about eliminating competing research subsidies to the oil and gas industry? Or, what about instituting a national carbon tax to level the economic playing field between energy sources to reflect their true costs?

These are the kinds of moves we need. More R&D would be great, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s the answer to climate change.

Solar: The Truly “Universal” Power Source

I was struck by something while watching the film The Martian recently. In the movie, Matt Damon’s character is stranded on Mars and survives, in part, by using solar modules as an energy source. It struck me that the exact same modules that work on Earth would also work on Mars—or, for that matter, on any planet in our universe that’s close enough to a sun where sufficient sunlight can get through its atmosphere.

As I understand it, the Martian atmosphere receives about half the average insolation as Earth’s. But Mars has a thin atmosphere and very few clouds, so approximately the same amount of insolation gets through to the surface, at least near the equator. (Dust storms are a serious problem, though; they can easily smother an array to the point where no current is produced.)

Realistically, getting an array to Mars that’s large enough to support even a small colony would be a formidable challenge due to its weight and size. Thin films might provide a partial solution here; they’re lighter and more compact, though today also less efficient. The weight of the racking and BOS components needs to be factored in, too, of course.

Then again, what’s the alternative? Wind, hydro, geothermal, and fossil fuels obviously won’t work on Mars. Nuclear could, though I imagine a reactor would be difficult to transport to Mars. Hydrogen fuel cells could work, too, but you’d need to transport and store (or create) hydrogen.

Without a doubt, powering a Martian colony would be a daunting technical challenge no matter what energy source is employed. But solar power is a compelling option on its face for several reasons. Off-the-shelf, mass produced, inexpensive modules would generate power on Mars. Conventional PV modules are reliable since they have no moving parts. They pose no significant risks in the dangerous frontier of space (i.e., they can’t explode). If they’re damaged by small meteorites or dust storms, they can be easily swapped out. Unlike nuclear reactors, they don’t require engineers to install or operate. And arrays can be deployed quickly, using simple tools, just as they are on Earth.

All of these factors are undoubtedly seductive to those who plan space missions. I just hope I live long enough to see an array installed on Mars.

Alcatraz: The Ultimate Solar+Storage Microgrid

While at Intersolar, I had the opportunity to take a tour of Alcatraz Island—not of the touristed parts, but rather of the solar generation and storage facilities that tourists rarely see, let alone even know exists.

Few people realize that Alcatraz has been mainly powered by PV since 2012. There is no connection to the grid in San Francisco just across the bay. Prior to the installation of the array, 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel were ferried to the island each week, where it fed large generators. Alcatraz-Rooftop-Solar-Array Today, two diesel generators remain for backup power generation, but the island is primarily powered by 959 SunPower modules on the roof of the main cellhouse building.

San-Francisco-Skyline-from-Alcatraz-Rooftop-1The array is rated for 307 kW. It feeds Princeton Power Systems inverters and a large bank of Deka lead-acid batteries.

Deka-Battery-Bank-on-Alcatraz

Princeton-Inverters-on-Alcatraz

The inverters and battery bank are stored in an old building that’s now off-limits to visitors:

House The typical load on the island varies between 50 and 80 kW, and the array produces a peak of 175 kW a day; the batteries absorb the excess power generated. Even so, the array and stored battery power is only enough to power 60% of the island’s loads, so the two diesel power generators (image below) make up for the rest.

Diesel-Generators-on-AlcatrazThe whole system cost $3.6 million and was funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which also brought us the Investment Tax Credit for solar.

The thing that really stood out for is how much more wind power would have made sense for Alcatraz. I’m no wind expert, but a few factors jumped out at me.

First, San Francisco is notoriously cloudy and foggy most of the year. (The day I was there was atypically beautiful.) Relying on the sun for a major tourist attraction’s power thus seems like a risky proposition. Even with a 307 kW array and a relatively modest load, those diesel generators still need to be fired up occasionally, which means diesel fuel still needs to be ferried to the island as it was decades ago.

Second, San Francisco—especially the Bay—is notoriously windy. The wind rarely calms down. The sun, obviously, is never available at night

And finally, bird poop is a serious problem for the array. Seagulls love Alcatraz, and those modules are a prime target. The National Park Service has to clean them frequently. Wind turbines are immune from this problem, and the turbine might scare away the seagulls, anyway. Of course, the seagulls would need to find another place to nest, so there would be an environmental impact to address.

Bird-Poop-on-Alcatraz-Solar-Array

I don’t know if wind turbines were even considered, but I do know that parties advocating for historical preservation objected to the array unless it could be kept out of site. So, they surely would have gone to town on a proposal to have tall wind turbines, even though Alcatraz is perhaps the perfect place for them.

Tower-on-Alcatraz

Check out this video, made by Intersolar in 2014, which has some great footage of the system:

All photos taken by David K. Wolpert on an iPhone 5s.

My Lab Day at ImagineSolar

I recently had the pleasure of being a student for a one-day lab course at ImagineSolar in Austin, Texas on solar PV system design and installation. I could not recommend it more strongly for anyone who wants to get a hands-on primer with PV.

In particular, it’s a nice educational follow-on to the seven-week survey course I took at Austin Community College. That course covered everything from the chemistry of how PV modules work to the fundamentals of electricity and how to design a PV array against goals and constraints. But the course lacked hands-on experience beyond playing with a Solar Pathfinder and similar tools.

The ImagineSolar course, in contrast, was mostly a hands-on workshop. Over the course of the day, we:

  • Prepped solar modules by attaching SolarEdge power optimizers, a grounding nut, and some cable stays.
  • Assembled eight panels into a ground-mount array, attached the MC-4 cables and a grounding wire, and terminated the cables into a junction box.
  • Ran wires from the junction box to a SolarEdge string inverter, and connected the inverter to an AC utility meter through a cut-off box.

Our group of amateur installers did it right the first time, as our array immediately produced over 1.3 kW, just as we estimated! It’s really amazing to see how just pointing some off-the-shelf Canadian Solar modules at the sun and connecting some wires with basic tools can produce so much usable power—cleanly, quietly, and safely. I don’t think you quite appreciate it until you do it.

Ground-Mount-Solar-ArrayThe nearly-completed eight-module array.

Later, we installed flashing and mounting hardware on a shingled demonstration roof, then installed modules. This made me appreciate how important good BOS components are. In our lab, the modules connected to the rails using tiny, easy to lose, and difficult to use hardware pieces. Any installer up on a hot roof would lose half of them and waste hours to complete the installation. Newer hardware—like the kind I saw demonstrated at InterSolar—could easily cut installation times down to a fraction of what it took us. Still, it was great training because now I appreciate the newer hardware I learn about.

Soiled-Solar-ModuleWe also tested the effect on power generation from soiling, as revealed by data coming from the power optimizer to the inverter, sent over Wi-Fi, and then accessible via a PC.
It was minimal.

If you’re anywhere near central Texas and looking for some solid hands-on experience with PV installation, I strongly recommend ImagineSolar. (They do quite a few other in-person and online solar-related courses, too.)