US solar industry rolls up its sleeves for new dawn

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email

Now the election bunting has been taken down, the real work begins in preparation for Barack Obama's second term as US president. Renewable energy companies across the country breathed a sigh of relief. But does his landmark victory mark a new dawn for solar?

Rhone Resch, Chief Executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), gave prospects of another stint for Obama in the White House a warm welcome. “Since President Obama took office, the amount of solar powering homes, businesses, and military bases has grown by 400% – from 1,100MW in 2008 to more than 5,700MW today,” he said. “As we recover from the recession, America needs plentiful and diverse energy resources, including solar, to power our economy.”

We're unlikely to see anything substantial until after Obama's inauguration. Some are hoping for progress with the appointment of Democrat Oregon Senator, Ron Wyden, to Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. But as the fevered discussions about a national carbon tax have shown, now is the time to write your wish-list — even if Congress will ultimately spike your dreams.

Obama took quite a lot of stick in his first term for pinning job growth to his economic stimulus. And although organisations like the SEIA  will point to an industry that employs 119,000 Americans at 5,600 companies, the Obama administration's numbers fell short of expectations.

But that might change, at least at the state level, with the likes of California switching focus to distributed generation (DG). Governor Jerry Brown after all has an ambitious target of 12GW of DG by 2020 and describes the state's 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard as a floor, not a ceiling.

Dustin Mulvaney, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Energy Resources at San Jose State University, is no advocate of utility-scale solar, which has stolen the megawatt limelight in recent years. DG yields more jobs per megawatt than utility scale, he said.

“The advantages of DG far outswamp the advantages of high insolation desert installations. A lot of the project developers I've been speaking to are going a bit smaller with their next round of projects.

“Job growth appears to be happening at least in the installation side of things. It seems there is a lot of opportunity there and particularly as we start to develop more local DG that's really where all the job growth is.”

An added bonus for the DG route would be to bring energy concerns into homes and businesses, Mulvaney added.

“Ultimately, solar is not going to save us. We need to change our behaviours significantly to be able to curtail our carbon emissions, and more out of sight, out of mind electricity generation doesn't really help the problem.

“Like the local food movement was about bringing people closer to the food they eat, people seeing and understanding the relationship between a PV system and electricity consumption will get people to reflect. Consumers can get a better sense of what it takes — say three PV panels to power a microwave.”

Lisa Belenky, Senior Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, would also like to see a ramping down of large-scale solar stranded out in the desert, often in fragile habitats.

“The real question is: what is our goal. If our goal is to shift towards a renewable energy economy, then we want to do it in the smartest way and the way that's going to be the most enduring. Nature conservation and energy efficiency cannot be left behind.

“We can't solve that problem by just building other types of giant utility power plants; the answer is to integrate it into our lifestyles, to make our houses more efficient, to use less energy per capita and use it more efficiently and certainly not to waste energy.”

The Bureau of Land Management's blueprint to standardise applications for utility-scale solar permits in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah is a step in the right direction, she said. But it's pointless to add clean electricity generation only to watch the energy leak away from homes built “like Swiss cheese”, she added.

However, the utility sector is here to stay and will continue to take the largest market share for some time to come. But its profile will change from mega-projects stranded from population centres to large and mid-size projects closer to load.

Sheldon Kimber is the Chief Operating Officer at Recurrent Energy, which is the primary solar developer for Sharp. The San Francisco-based company focuses on projects in the 20MW range and may well have hit a sweet spot in project size, with contracts signed for 600MW.

“We think of ourselves as power development folks on the wholesale side of the meter to provide power to utilities. It matched up with some very advantageous development opportunities to apply for interconnection in California as long as you didn't exceed 20MW.”

Kimber describes himself as the closest thing to a Republican you're likely to find in granola crunching, tree hugging northern California. If you see his name on the programme for an industry event, I strongly recommend that you head to his panel discussion to listen to his outspoken but very thoughtful views.

But before the election last week, he told me that that a Romney victory would have been disastrous for the solar industry.

“I've made an effort to really understand what the energy policy of a Romney administration might look like and why they've gone out of their way to leave their options open or not publicly put down renewable energy. They've not cut them out of the equation totally but clearly don't seem to be making it the centrepiece of any kind of energy policy.

“That's a bit frightening. It really misses a huge opportunity from a very pro-business standpoint.”

Leader of the House, John Boehner, has already told the Republican Party to step into line to agree a way forward to avoid the “fiscal cliff, though he has tried this before, and failed. But agreement on anything, even the real colour of white, though a refreshed bipartisanship after Republicans failed to force Obama into single term presidency, would be a welcome reprieve.

Kimber reckoned that some solar advocates only had themselves to blame.

“The whole idea of this partisanship of solar is silly. I don't understand why renewable energy is a liberal thing and not a conservative thing,” he said.

“It's only that way because the way in which some advocates of renewable energy have gone about advocating has turned it into a partisan game. From what is being said publicly Obama's team has spent more time focused on renewable energy and would be the clear choice for furthering renewable energy in this country.”

Good policy at state and federal level, along with an extension of the Investment Tax Credit beyond 2016 would be extremely helpful for the industry, he said. But upstream vendors also need to do their part, Kimber added.

“The market price right now is what it takes to do solar and as the upstream business consolidates and comes together what it really needs to make peace with is the fact that it needs to continue to find ways to do things at least cost.

“[Some people think] we can make a smaller cottage industry where we take premium prices and go after premium markets — that can't happen. The only path forward is to realise that there's tremendous scale and opportunity but we've got to remain at these really low prices and become even more competitive.

“They are very difficult decisions right now given the fiscal situations, but the will power to push solar forward is really what we're going to rely on in the next two years. The biggest opportunity is just the scale of the market. Everyone in solar needs to see themselves as a member of the electric power industry with $350 million of sales to end-users. That opportunity is massive.”

28 September 2021
Solar Solutions International is the largest trade show for solar energy in Northwest Europe. Now the solar market has grown up, it's time for the next step. Solar Solutions International displays more than 500 innovations and over 100 practical seminars concerning the latest in energy storage, smart products, and an ever evolving array of solar panels. As an exclusively B2B trade show, Solar Solutions International offers both exhibitors and visitors the chance to network at the highest level. Duurzaam Verwarmd, the largest trade show for sustainable HVAC technology in the Benelux, is held simultaneously. This way your one visit gets you up to date with all of the developments in both sustainable energy and heating.
6 October 2021
Intersolar Europe is the world’s leading exhibition for the solar industry. It takes place as part of The smarter E Europe – the continent’s largest platform for the energy industry. Under the motto “Connecting solar business,” manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, service providers and project planners and developers from around the world meet in Munich every year to discuss the latest developments and trends, explore innovations firsthand and meet potential new customers.
6 October 2021
The future is bright for a new era of US solar and storage, and the 8th annual Solar & Storage Finance Summit will provide opportunities to discuss solutions to the industry’s challenges and provide a networking platform designed to bring together the top minds in the industry to do business. With a mix of high-level, informative presentations and panels, a stellar cast of speakers and audience members with deal-making capacity, the 2021 edition of the event will be a sell-out success.
18 October 2021
Intersolar South America, South America’s largest exhibition and conference for the solar industry, takes place at the Expo Center Norte in São Paulo, Brazil on October 18–20, 2021, and has a focus on the areas of photovoltaics, PV production and solar thermal technologies. At the accompanying Intersolar South America Conference, renowned experts shed light on hot topics in the solar industry.
19 October 2021
This year’s EV World Congress will hold a special role, not only as the first live EverythingEV event in over a year – a chance to renew your connections and re-engage with the EV sector face to face – but also as a chance to share insight and inspiration as world starts to look towards move on post COVID towards hitting ambitious decarbonisation goals in 2030 and beyond. As ever, we will be bringing world leading organisations, cities, and technology providers to the UK to inspire EV innovators, and delve into the challenges facing the sector as the UK looks to revolutionise road transport.
20 October 2021
Utility-scale solar is evolving, shaped by higher power modules and demand for increasingly lower levelised cost of electricity (LCOE). Those trends are also changing project requirements elsewhere, with inverters capable of delivering high power density and power capacity in strong demand. In this webinar, FIMER will detail how its innovative high-power, multi-MPPT string inverter and modular conversion solution can both meet those demands and transform the utility-scale solar sector for the better.

Read Next

September 22, 2021
Renewables developer and asset manager RES has named Eduardo Medina as its new chief executive designate, with the former Vestas, SunPower and Acciona exec set to take over at the end of next month.
September 22, 2021
More than 190 US solar companies have warned that proposed duties on imports of modules and cells from three Southeast Asian countries represent an “immediate and serious threat” to America’s solar sector.
September 22, 2021
Access to off-grid electricity should be seen as a key mechanism to drive rural development and improve economic wellbeing and living standards in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), according to a new report by University College London’s (UCL) Engineering for International Development Centre and off-grid, pay-as-you go solar company BBOXX.
September 22, 2021
A project combining 300MWac of solar with a 150MWac/600MWh battery energy storage facility in New Mexico has advanced after DE Shaw agreed to acquire it.
September 22, 2021
Generac Power Systems has bolstered its presence in the microinverter segment with the launch of a new product line that it says allows homeowners to take advantage of the full potential output of solar arrays.
September 22, 2021
Oil and gas major Shell has launched the Shell Energy brand in Brazil and has committed to investing R$3 billion (US$570 million) in renewables in the country by the end of 2025

Subscribe to Newsletter

Upcoming Events

Solar Media Events
October 6, 2021
Solar Media Events
October 19, 2021
Solar Media Events
December 1, 2021