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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rational non-adoption of PV

On Monday, Matt Hunter of CNBC asked provocatively “Does the Solar Industry Have a PR Problem?” The story was based on a fall study done by students at the SJSU Sbona Honors Program, and as someone who helped mentor the students, I was proud to see it published.

However, the conclusions reported by CNBC were different than those of the March webinar that discussed the report. To quote from Hunter’s report:
Jim Nelson, CEO of solar manufacturer Solar3D, says that, true to the perception, solar technology is not quite ready for prime time.

The problem, says Nelson, is that solar is generally still not price competitive with fossil fuels for energy generation, says Nelson. Paradoxically, government efforts to subsidize the purchase of solar panels actually slow down the adoption of innovation that should ultimately make renewable energy more affordable.

By encouraging consumers to buy immature and inferior solar technology right now, government subsidies risk locking people into solar systems that are inefficient, expensive, and may or may not ultimately pay off to the consumer. “They’re encouraging people to use things that don’t work,” he says.

At current kilowatt-per-hour rates, solar energy costs about 4 times more than power drawn from the grid, says Nelson. (Energy Secretary Steven Chu aims to bring down the cost by 70 percent to 75 percent by 2020.)

Reduce that by another quarter, and solar becomes attractive for both residential and industrial customers. (10 cents a kilowatt hour is the average cost of electricity in the U.S.)
Hunter quoted another expert that noted the payback period for residential PV is normally 10 years or more.

The reality is that today, solar makes economic sense for some people but not for others. (As Hunter notes, some people who are affluent or “passionate about green energy” may buy it even if it doesn’t pencil out.)

There are five things that drive the economics o PV adoption:
  1. cost of the system
  2. subsidy for the system
  3. amount of sun
  4. cost of capital to finance the system
  5. the price of the substitute (grid power)
The press tends to focus on the first three. However, in talking to people in industry, the real action is where electric rates are high: with PG&E’s tiered rate structure, running an air conditioner in the Central Valley is prohibitively expensive and thus even an expensive PV system looks attractive.

Certainly the “grid parity” curves on PPT decks for the past decade assumed increasing fossil fuel prices (which may be a false assumption). In places like the Central Valley — or especially Hawai‘i — the substitutes are already expensive enough to make solar cost-competitive.

As it turns out, on Monday I had a farewell lunch with one of my coworkers, Gita Mathur of the SJSU College of Business. Gita noted that her 1985 first doctorate (of two) was on GaAs photocells, and the lab efficiencies she was demonstrating 25 years ago were almost the same as those for commercial products today. In her view, the subsequent innovation was mainly in the packaging — reducing the balance of system costs (including labor) to get those cells installed and available to generate power. This is certainly the area where industry continues to make strides, and in fact the basis of the low cost (and low efficiency) thin film startups.

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