Solar’s future : wins and loses

An optimistic projection states that by 2030, the solar generation capacity could go up to 250GW. This is a leap of over 100 folds since 2010 where the capacity was only 2GW, meaning that the share of energy pie from solar would rise from 1% to 10-15%. Price wise, cost of solar is now around $1.50/watt from $3.50/watt in 2010.

Here’re some cheerful indicators:

  1. Solar cost is only going to fall more as panels become more efficient and intense competition forces costs of solar projects down.
  2. Reforms in different states on energy are happening. NY’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), for example, focuses on creation of distributed service platform providers (DSPPs), where utilities will effectively host mini-marketplaces for energy to and from distributed energy resources.
  3. The Clean Power Plan enacted in Feb 2016. This will force polluting plants to cut down their emissions as well as encourage each state to have their own plan to achieve the emissions targets and encourage cleaner energy.

And then there’re the less sunny reality checks:

  1. The expiration of the investment tax credit (ITC) in 2016, the incentive scheme that applies around a one-third discount off the cost of installing solar and solar-plus-storage. Currently petitioning for extensions.
  2. No ability for solar to be fed into grid based on demand as now it’s still relying on low-storage, not so stable loads which are pretty much at the mercy of the sun’s variability.
  3. The rush to build and supply solar panels may cause an over supply of panels and force solar companies out of business if demand is unable to catch up with supply.

Below is a chart of current state of clean electricity breakdown in USA. Wind is the fastest growing sector and solar is still growing but remains below the levels of wind and hydro power.

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San Francisco’s mandatory solar panels in 2017

So San Francisco passed a new law mandating all new buildings below ten storeys high to install some form of solar power: either solar PV or solar thermal. This will come in effect from 2017. This is a welcoming news (any governmental step towards more clean energy is a welcome gesture), indicating the city government is showing vested interest in fulfilling the promise of 100% renewable power in 2020.

Let’s take things apart a little bit and put things in perspective. San Francisco has a land size of 130km2, and around population of 800,000+. The new law is estimated to save around 27k metric tonnes of CO2 / year or equivalent of lifting off 5000+ cars on the road. The average San Francisco-ian uses about 7 metric tonnes of CO2 annually which means that this law will result in an average of per capita reduction of 0.4%. So clearly, the amount of reduction of CO2 is sort of negligent.

There are two things that could be done to improve this:

  1. To increase the mandate of having 15% rooftop space for unblocked sunshine to a greater percentage to say 30% or 40%. This will raise the capacity available for solar panel infrastructure.
  2. To solve the problem of energy demand by building taller residential buildings and encouraging people to move more into city. This will kill two birds with one stone: reducing long-commute hours and reducing apartment unit size which means less energy use.

So I would say if the anyone is really serious about tackling climate change, it would be better to look ahead and consider the bigger picture. That said, let’s hope for more good news to come.