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Is There Light “Solar Energy” at the End of the Tunnel?

April 15, 2011


Can it be true?  Will renewable energy, specifically solar, play on a level field with fossil fuels and become financially attractive? All without incentives! Will U.S. net electrical generation now dominated by fossil fuels switch over in the foreseeable future to renewables? A long awaited wish comes true.

For so long, the lowly electron born out of dirty fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas has been criticized for its environmental impact and generation of greenhouse gas. The term “electron” comes from the Latin word “electricus” or “amber-like” referring to the property of attracting small objects (static electricity) by rubbing amber. Taming the election made modern day life what it is; a commodity, with little or no viable alternatives, that society cannot live without.

For this reason, there is a global effort to find a cleaner, reliable and lower-cost way to generate electricity. The major problem is not finding a cleaner method, but developing a reliable (ability to satisfy demand when and where needed) and cost-effective new electricity generating technologies, typically called “renewable.” The issue with reliability will be discussed in a subsequent discussion. Let it be said that storage systems in conjunction with intelligent power controllers that monitor the grid may help to mitigate the reliability concern, though at a cost.

It is well known that solar power is one of the cleanest and safest sources of energy generation. Because solar panels simply convert the energy of the sun into energy mankind can use, there are no harmful byproducts or threats to the environment. One major concern is the cost of solar power. Solar panels are not cheap; and because they are constructed from fragile materials, they must constantly be maintained and often replaced. Further, since each photovoltaic panel has only about a 40% efficiency, single solar panels are not sufficient power producers. This problem has been offset by gathering together many large panels acting as an array to produce energy. Although this setup takes up much more space, it does generate much more power.

In 2009, coal, natural gas, and nuclear generation accounted for 88.0 percent of total net generation, and between 85 and 90 percent during the period 1997 through 2009. However, the relative contribution of these energy sources has been shifting; natural gas generation has seen the fastest growth in recent years. Including hydroelectric, the generation of electricity from renewables was about 10.7%. The largest three contributors were hydro (6.9 %), wind (1.9 %), followed by wood and wood-derived fuels (0.9 %). Discounting the hydro portion, renewable generation made up only 3.6 percent of total electricity generation.

U.S. Electric Power Industry Net Generation, 2009

Currently, the share of domestic U.S. energy production derived from renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass/biofuels, geothermal, solar, water, wind) rose to 10.92% in 2010, up from 10.65% in 2009. By comparison, nuclear power’s share of domestic energy production dropped from 11.48% in 2009 to 11.26% in 2010.

Among renewable energy sources, biomass and biofuels combined accounted for 51.98% of the total, followed by hydropower (30.66%), wind (11.29%), geothermal (4.68%), and solar (1.38%). Comparing 2010 production to that in 2009, wind energy increased by 28%, biomass/biofuels by 10%, and solar and geothermal by 4% each. Hydropower dropped by 6%.

During 2010, solar increased by 45.8%, wind grew by 28.1%, geothermal expanded by 4.4%, and biomass increased by 3.7%. Among the non-hydro renewable sources, wind accounted for 56.3%, biomass for 33.6%, geothermal for 9.3%, and solar for 0.8%. Nuclear power’s share of net electrical generation dropped from 20.22% in 2009 to 19.59% in 2010.

An article by Ehren Goossens “Solar Power May Already Rival Coal, Prompting Installation Surge,” that appeared in the April 6, 2011 issue of Bloomberg, presents the potential game changing position of solar in the marketplace. The writer states:

• “Solar panel installations may surge in the next two years as the cost of generating electricity from the sun rivals coal-fueled plant …..”

• “Large photovoltaic projects will cost $1.45 a watt to build by 2020, half the current price…..”

• “We are already in this phase change and are very close to grid parity …..”

• “Chinese companies such as JA Solar Holdings Ltd., Canadian Solar and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. are making panels cheaper ……”

• “The most powerful driver in our industry is the relentless reduction of cost …..”

• “Installation of solar PV systems will almost double to 32.6 gigawatts by 2013 from 18.6 gigawatts last year …..”

• “Electricity from coal costs about 7 cents a kilowatt hour compared with 6 cents for natural gas and 22.3 cents for solar photovoltaic energy in the final quarter of last year …..”

• “Rooftop solar installations also will become cheaper …..”

• “System costs have declined 5 percent to 8 percent (a year), and we will continue to see that …..”

In closing, while solar is on the rise, it has a long way to go to be a serious contender to natural gas and other forms of low-cost conventional power. A report from Renewable Energy Finance Forum-Wall Street held last July states the threat of cheap natural gas extracted from shale could radically undermine the growth of the solar power industry.

The U.S. is in the midst of a natural gas boom largely precipitated by the expanded use of a method to unlock gas reserves from shale rock called hydrological fracturing or “fracking”. The result has been an 11% increase in domestic natural gas production between 2007 and late 2009, a six year low in gas prices, and an estimate among industry experts that the U.S. has enough gas in its ground to last 100 years.

Finally, after so many years of token effort towards solar energy development by the U.S. Department of Energy (“DoE”), it would be nice to have competitive solar panel manufacturing in America.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 7:29 AM


    The image was deleted immediately upon notification. I did not know, will not happen again.

    If you like please contact me at:
    Barry Stevens


  1. Is There Light “Solar Energy” at the End of the Tunnel … | Alternative Energy Sources
  2. Is There Light “Solar Energy” at the End of the Tunnel … | Alternative Energy Sources

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