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A recent article in USA Today/CNBC online asks the question, “Does the solar industry have a PR problem?" Yes, concludes the article, and that bad press is well justified because “solar technology is not quite ready for prime time". Well, if the USA Today article is any indication, the solar industry clearly does have a PR problem, but it is not because of any failure in existing technology. The failure, rather, is in media reporting that allows interested parties to speak as experts who denigrate existing solutions, without ever bothering to disclose the expert’s inherent conflict of interest, or even to report on the facts as they pertain to actual solar clients.
There can be little doubt that those of us who believe in the benefits of solar power systems have done a poor job of informing the public about the value of solar today. (This blog, and the writings of folks like Tor “SolarFred” Valenza notwithstanding, there is a great deal of work to be done on this front.) So it is hard to argue with the general proposition that solar has a PR problem - as in not nearly enough PR to counter the spin coming from the naysayers and the apologists for the status quo.
But the article takes a different tack. It quotes at length from someone named Jim Nelson, the CEO of solar start-up Solar3D, to explain why solar has earned its bad rap:
The problem, says Nelson, is that solar is generally still not price competitive with fossil fuels for energy generation, says Nelson [sic]. 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.
Wow. Lots of troublesome statements in that blockquote. Let’s break this down and see what’s what.
First off - what do people actually pay for electricity from their utility versus from a solar power system? In Run on Sun’s southern California service area, the actual loaded cost of electricity ranges from $0.15 to $0.29/kWh. For a commercial solar client, the cost per kWh - after allowing for rebates, tax incentives and O&M costs - is around $0.11/kWh. These are the real world costs and benefits for clients adding solar right now. For a 50 kW commercial installation, that translates into payback occurring between years 4 and 5 with an internal rate of return over the 25 year lifetime of the system of 17% or more. Moreover, every year the client’s savings will grow as the cost of electricity from the utility continues to rise while the cost for electricity from their solar power system remains constant.
Second - solar today is far from something that doesn’t work. To the contrary, solar power systems work day in and day out with minimal maintenance beyond occasionally directing a hose at the panels to clean them off. True, inverters will likely need to be replaced about halfway into the 25 year lifetime of the system (although newer designs like the Enphase M215 micro-inverter are now pushing inverter lifetime far beyond older products) but that cost is part of the O&M cost considered above. While solar panels will degrade over time, modern panels are warrantied to produce 80% of their rated power after 25 years and even older designs are still operating just fine after 40 years. What other major asset can a business owner purchase that will pay for itself within five years, require minimal maintenance over its entire lifetime, and still be working well after 25 years? Oh, and save the business owner many times over the initial investment during those 25 years?
Too bad more things “don’t work” as well as a solar power system.
Finally, what is Mr. Nelson’s perspective on all of this? The article describes his company as a “solar manufacturer” but manufacturers typically have products for sale. Touring the Solar3D website reveals lots of PR, but no products. Rather, Mr. Nelson’s company, “Solar3D, Inc. is developing a breakthrough 3-dimensional solar cell technology to maximize the conversion of sunlight into electricity." The key phrase being, “is developing".
Now we are all for more efficient solar technologies being developed into real-world products that we can put on roofs. We sincerely wish Mr. Nelson well in his efforts to bring ever better products to market. But it is just silly to tell the solar-buying public that present technology is “immature” and “doesn’t work” when Gigawatts of installed solar power systems prove just the opposite. And it is sloppy journalism to quote him without revealing his true position in the industry.
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