by Ivy Main
Solar energy, long viewed as too expensive for widespread use in Virginia, may reach competitive price levels across the nation within just six years.
This was the big take-home message for several Sierra Club members who attended a one-day conference
on April 24  marking the opening of George Washington University’s Institute for Analysis of Solar Energy.
By 2015, according to presentations from representatives of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Deutsche Bank Securities, the cost of installing solar technology will reach price parity with
other power sources across 80 percent of the United States.
The solar industry had been growing at a rate of 40 percent per year until last fall’s collapse of energy prices and the credit crunch. The industry now expects a couple of bad years, but anticipates thereafter, business
The market is heavily segmented, with different products competitive in different circumstances and no one technology clearly superior, although thin-film technology is now the industry leader. China claims to have a new low-cost technology, but it remains to be seen whether it can really compete.
One discussion centered on the German model for promoting development of renewable energy. Germany is the world leader in solar installations, in spite of having about as much sunshine as Alaska. Germany achieved this through use of a feed-in tariff (FIT), which sets rates for each different source of electricity and guarantees producers access to the grid at those rates. The rates are determined by the cost of production plus a reasonable profit. This approach costs the government nothing, and the extra cost to consumers amounts to only two Euros (about $3) per month.
The synergy of solar and wind energy was discussed, a point of special interest for Virginia, which has huge offshore wind energy resources. Wind blows more strongly at night and in the winter, while solar panels produce power in daytime and are most efficient in summer.
With improvements in forecasting that will allow transmission grid operators more time to respond, and the continued use of natural gas peaking plants to fill in the supply gaps, the grid will be able to handle large amounts of renewable energy without disruptions in supply.
Presentations are available on the IASE web site, http://solar.gwu.edu/.
Ivy Main is the Virginia Chapter Renewable Energy chairperson.