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June 20, 2011 / Dr. Toad

Watts happening!

Pardon the ridiculous pun. GigaWatts happening, actually — 40 GW worldwide solar-derived power production currently. And the predictions are for a TeraWatt by the end of the decade. For reference, 3.3 TW is all of US power usage.

Right now in the WA State Convention Center in Seattle, the 50th anniversary meeting of the Photovoltaics Specialist Conference is taking place. Participants, who number way over 1,000, are issued sun-colored umbrellas, but Seattle isn’t forthcoming with its rain today.

Yellow umbrella

Speaking of weather, is it strange to have a solar power conference in Seattle of all places? Not really. Despite the appearances and the whining, Seattle actually has the same insolation (solar radiation received in a given surface area) as Germany. And Germany is at the forefront of solar electricity use.

And it’s not the first time that the conference comes to Seattle. Last time was in 1970, when solar cells were used only in space, interest in photovoltaics was diminishing, and the conventional wisdom had it that any module above 1kW just wasn’t going to happen. Now spacecraft consume 15-30kW from solar panels and nobody bats an eye. At that meeting in Seattle in 1970, almost as an afterthought, at the last afternoon session of the last conference day, it was suggested that maybe terrestrial PV cells were a possibility.

And now? Now we have 40 GW of terrestrial PV-generated power worldwide. In the words of the keynote speaker Richard Swanson, “we have arrived”. Swanson emphasized that he was speaking only for himself and not as a representative of Sunpower, the company he co-founded.

Dr Richard Swanson

Richard Swanson speaking at the Commonwealth Club in CA in 2008 (click through for ForaTV video -- 1 hr)

Past projections for PV technology cost have come true and costs have plummeted. To laughter from the audience Swanson claimed it’s only logical that current predictions will also bear out in the future.

In any case, they’d better, because the current investment tax credits for solar energy are set to expire in 2016. With the 30% credit in place now, solar power plants are actually competitive with coal and natural gas based ones, and even nuclear power plants. Without the incentives, not so much. But Swanson predicts the industry will be ready for a no-incentives market in five years. And that widespread grid parity will be achieved sometime between 2013 and 2018.

The only thing that could stop this march of progress is misinformation. The pace of invention and development in the solar power industry is “dizzying”, said Swanson. It’s sometimes hard for experts to keep up, let alone for policymakers, governments, and journalists. Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry book published in 2010 and well-received by the Wall Street Journal and The National Review claims for example that the average power density of a PV module is less than 7 W per squared meter, which is way below current industry standards of 20 to 30 W per squared meter, about half that of a comparable gas power plant.

That’s the myth of solar energy production requiring too much land. There are others: that it’s too small a thing to bother with, or too expensive — the industry is growing and costs are diminishing exponentially. And then there’s the myth that it will make the grid unstable, but there’s now empirical data from Spain and Germany that show up to 35% grid penetration in 2010 with working engineering solutions for any instability concerns.

This is all a far cry from 1961, the year the first Photovoltaics Specialist Conference met. The year, reminisced Larry Kazmerski, when JFK was inaugurated, postage stamps cost 4 cents, OPEC was formed, the Berlin wall was built, the first disposable diaper and the first electric toothbrush were made, Hemingway and Schroedinger died, Obama was born, and the “Eye of the Needle” restaurant opened at the top of the freshly erected Space Needle.

Vanguard TV3 Satellite

Vanguard TV3 Satellite that failed to launch in 1957 -- see the solar panels? -- credit: NASA

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