Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why Solar

I was asked this week why I wanted government help for solar. It was actually a pretty reasonable question considering all the bad news about solar both locally and nationally. It has taken me literally six years to come up with an answer to the question, “Why solar and why should the government be involved?” First I want to list all the bad things I have seen in the solar industry and also by people professing to have something to do with solar but really just being crooks. The first company I worked for left 2 wires exposed in a circuit box, they were dead but it still bothers me. Solyndra: My personal thoughts are the Federal Government shouldn’t be on the supply side—that’s nationalism. They can, however, help foster demand for a product through tax incentives or deregulation. (Solyndra was a pretty novel idea but they didn’t know that market conditions for all of their competition were about to cut costs by 40% right when Solyndra opened a huge new factory.) Evergreen First Solar Q cells AQT Solar PrimeStar Solar/ GE (GE bought thin film maker Prime star for approx $300m) All of these solar companies have either gone bankrupt or laid people off. Here is the connection between them all. There are two types of solar, Silicon which is made out of sand and Thin-film which is made out of rare earth metals. Some of these typically used metals are cadmium, telluride and indium.
Silicon makes up 27% of the earth’s crust, we have a lot of it and it’s recyclable. The cost of silicon has gone from $475kg in 2009 to sub $30kg in 2012 and it is still headed lower. (If you want to know why, I have another letter Now locally South Carolina has had some missteps too. Solar EOS, Kingstree SC. I knew they were going to be unsuccessful the first time I met them, but no one asked me. Prior to meeting in person I did invite them to join SBA and they did, for one year. After I met the COO and he knew nothing about solar energy, I warned the SC Energy office that the COO was unlikely to succeed, and they told me they had come to the same conclusion. Global Energy Franchise, Blacksburg SC. Again I heard about someone fishing for grants and he had an ‘idea’, not a full business prospectus, not start-up capital, but an idea to open a factory/distributor/ warehouse. If you know solar, you know that manufacturing and distributorships don’t start with big factories they start in a lab or on a Web site. You have to grow these businesses and then expand. Boeing 2.6MW SC project goes to NC based contractor. Despite all these failures, or maybe because of them, I have never been more certain that solar research and development is the single, fundamental key to our energy future. All of our energy comes from the sun, I’ve said this 1000 times and I’ll say it again, all of our energy comes from the sun. Coal, oil and natural gas are fossilized plant matter created by the sun. Nuclear materials needed for fission are created by the sun. I have been extremely lucky to visit a coal plant, a hydro plant and a nuclear plant as a guest of Bob Long, of South Carolina Electric and Gas. Bob is a stellar individual and SCE&G is lucky to have him. His visits and my subsequent research have taught me a lot about energy. I have met many of the energy leaders in South Carolina. They are all very bright people. We are lucky to have them. I watched Catherine Heigel of Duke Energy deftly pit-bull solar activists at the Public Service Commission. She has been promoted to head up Duke’s SC division and rightfully so. Mike Couick of the SC Co-ops is a formidable man with his deep understanding of energy issues. Mike Smith of Central Electric Power Co-op has managed 70 installs of solar as part of a pilot program. Philip Greenway and Liz Kress of Santee Cooper have quietly advocated for smart policy on economically feasible renewable energy for years. Dukes Scott graciously listened to me in a meeting with the Office of Regulatory staff and Ashlie Lancaster of the South Carolina Energy Office has always listened to Solar concerns while balancing what is best for the State of South Carolina. Meeting and listening to these people has helped shape my understanding of energy production in SC. Everything I’ve learned has shown me that energy and government are intertwined and have been since the beginning of the modern age. The federal government taxed and regulated the SC fur trade in the 1740’s when Charleston was one of the biggest trading cities in America. Co-ops were born out of the federal Rural Electrification Agency in the 1930’s before rural America had access to electricity. All research in nuclear energy has been funded by the federal government but private companies have benefitted greatly from nuclear power plants. This is how America works, government protects the people, (sometimes from themselves) and private business prospers. There is no aspect of private business that does not benefit directly from government and taxes are levied to keep the system in balance. Investor owned utilities receive $52 dollars per rate-payer, per year in incentives and non-profit co-operatives receive $23 dollars per year, per rate-payer. Nuclear power is underwritten by the federal government and the state gives tax breaks in county and state taxes to enable power plant expansion. Do I endorse this system of government? Somewhat. Do I condemn it? Yes, somewhat, but it is the way we do things and for solar I know only one thing—eventually it will be an integral part of our energy mix. So when asked the question, “Why solar and why should the government be involved?” The answer is we have always used solar; the future will just be more so… and yes if the government is for the people, by the people and of the people then a definitely yes!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for your answer to the question, “Why solar and why should the government be involved?”. We hear this question so often from people who insist that free-market capitalism always works perfectly to create the best outcomes.