I was curious if anyone had created a documentary about solar, and found only one. Here Comes the Sun, a 48-minute, made-for-TV production by a Dutch film crew, was released in 2010. I’m sure it never saw any kind of theatrical release and was only posted to YouTube in 2012 with English voiceover narration. (The original, in Dutch, can be found here.)
The underlying premise of the film is not surprising to anyone in the solar industry: solar is bigger than you think today, and only going to get bigger—much bigger. Most of the film focuses on what’s happened in Germany as a sort of template that the rest of the world will follow.
If the film has a hero, it’s Hermann Scheer, a German politician who might be considered the “godfather” of solar in Germany and, in truth, sparked much of the worldwide solar revolution we see today.
The film intersperses some truly thought-provoking comments from Scheer with interviews with representatives from companies like SunPower, Applied Materials, and SolFocus. It also profiles some interesting utility-scale projects in the US, Spain and Jordan, and touches on the advent of solar in India.
I enjoyed the film. It was prophetic in places. The representative from SolFocus predicted that solar would a gigawatt industry in the next five years, meaning 2015. It’s actually closer to 200 GW today. (She may have meant the market for concentrated PV, which was SolFocus’ market.)
Another prediction was that solar would reach parity in production costs with fossil fuels in 2011 or 2012. It’s happened (at least, in places, at times).
I think the most interesting observation—I wouldn’t call it a prediction—was Scheer’s argument that the costs of renewable energy production can only go down over time. The only cost of PV, he explains, is technology, and technology costs always decline over time. But with conventional energy sources, there are raw inputs (e.g., coal or natural gas extraction and shipping) that can only drop so far in cost and will never be zero. His point is that it is thus inevitable that renewable energy will be cheaper—in fact, much cheaper—than conventionally-sourced energy.
A representative from Applied Materials drove this point home by comparing where semiconductor costs were 30 years ago versus now. Indeed, PV module technology is following the same curves of massive performance improvement at steadily plummeting price points as related technologies like flat-panel TVs and microprocessors.
Of course, there are some inputs into modules and BOS component production (silicon, aluminum, steel, copper, doping chemicals, etc.) that are susceptible to price swings, but those are one-time costs, and those inputs are far more abundant than fossil fuels.
As for correlating what happened in Germany with what has (or will) happen in the rest of the world, the argument falls short. As Scheer explained, energy is more of a political game than a technological one. And it’s a localized one, too. Europe never had the deeply-ingrained love affair that the US has about its vast natural gas and coal reserves. For Europe, it’s less about protecting jobs and more about the environment. Until the US reaches that level of consciousness, if you will, it won’t move forward with solar as quickly as Germany. We won’t see the generous feed-in tariffs here that are found in Germany, for instance. And, importantly, European energy prices were already high. If they were in the US—as they are in California—you’d expect (and get) much more interest in renewables.
Another thing the film did well was debunk some myths about solar. For instance, you don’t need abundant sunlight—Germany isn’t particularly sunny, yet leads the world in solar energy production. Another myth debunked: You wouldn’t need to cover the world in solar panels. The film cites an estimate that a solar farm 300,000 square kilometers in size could power the entire world. That’s the size of France. Doable.
And a final point. As with all technology industries, solar companies come and go, as does countries’ commitment to it. SolFocus shuttered in 2013. The film briefly mentioned BP as the one oil company that seemed to “get” solar (they were exhibiting at InterSolar in Germany in 2009), though BP subsequently left the market. And Spain was depicted as a country that was also aggressively pursuing solar, though has since fallen behind the US. And, sadly, Hermann Scheer died in 2010, probably just months after filming wrapped up. With him, the industry lost a great advocate.