Renewable energy is on a tear, especially solar and wind power, yet nobody seems to know it. Perhaps it is time to start paying closer attention.
What used to be a fringe industry limited to eco-zealous homeowners, renewable energy is now a booming global phenomenon. In the U.S., the renewable movement is capturing headlines like “Renewables Account for Almost 50% of all New US Energy in 2012.” While the key word here is “new,” it is still quite an impressive feat. In the U.S., 13.1 gigawatts (GW) of wind and 3.1 GW of solar photovoltaics (PV) were brought online in 2012 alone, contributing to a total of 9.37 GW of solar electric (as of Q2 2013) and 60 GW of wind (as of year end 2012).
Even more impressive are the expectations of how quickly the presence of renewable energy will continue to grow in the U.S. and abroad. Globally, the capacity of installed photovoltaics has doubled since the beginning of 2011 and is expected to double again in the next 2.5 years.
This level of continued growth is of critical importance if we are going to take meaningful actions to address climate change (especially absent government support) and support national energy security through energy independence at home.
For building owners – whether large commercial or smaller residential – solar represents a viable option when it comes to cost-effective displacement of dirtier electricity production and greenhouse gas emissions. The adoption of solar technologies can reduce operating costs and improve resiliency including the potential to provide redundancy in the case of grid failures. Many incentives exist for building owners and solar developers in most states, sometimes offered by the local utility as a way to reduce peak demand and some offered by the local, state or federal government.
There are a number of reasons for the growth of the solar industry in the U.S. including the increased prevalence of third-party owners. In one financial arrangement, a third party can build and own the system on your roof and you pay them for the electricity the system generates instead of paying the utility (and almost always at a cheaper price). A recent Ernst & Young study found third-party ownership of rooftop photovoltaic arrays accounted for over 50 percent of the residential and commercial market.
But much of the growth in the renewable energy sector can be attributed to the falling costs of renewables and increased efficiencies in advanced technology. During the time it took the capacity of PV to double, the cost of a PV module has fallen by 62 percent.
According to McKinsey & Company’s 2012 publication Solar Power: Darkest Before Dawn, the cost of residential PV systems fell from more than $100 per watt peak (Wp) in 1975 to $8 per Wp in 2007, and dropped even further to under $1 per Wp in early 2012.
Even so, the cost of PV system installations in the U.S. is still much greater than in many parts of the world. Part of the reason for this is that while the cost of manufacturing the actual PV panels has decreased, the majority of the cost associated with an installed system in the US – including hardware, mounting, permitting, and installation – have not decreased as quickly.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a study entitled Beyond Renewable Portfolio Standards: An Assessment of Regional Supply and Demand Conditions Affecting the Future of Renewable Energy in the West that suggests that by 2025, properly sited wind and solar energy generation could be cost-competitive in the American West relative to conventional energy sources, and reduce financial risks to the general public (no fossil fuel price shocks). According to Deutsche Bank, solar is already cost competitive to retail electricity in 10 states and is on track to be competitive in an additional 12 states over the next 18 months.
In addition, we are starting to see some of the first commercially viable utility solar power plants, such as the 280 MW Solana Plant, recently started up outside of Phoenix. The plant uses 3,200 tilted mirrors to focus sunlight to a central tower that creates steam to run a turbine, and can generate electricity for about 70,000 households, even after the sun sets.
Another plant, the 392 MW Invanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, also recently came online. Dwarfing the Solana plant, Invanpah will generate enough electricity to power 420,000 homes once it is fully built.
So if you’ve been waiting around for the day when renewable energy finally finds a foothold and starts making a real dent in our energy picture, and can cost effectively compete with fossil fuel alternatives, it seems like that day is here is some places, and on the very near horizon in others.