the state of the market
In case you missed it, the solar photovoltaics industry was this past decade’s hottest drama. Here’s a quick summary: ground-breaking innovations, shortage of raw materials, dubious intellectual property practices, oversupply, sub-cost dumping, bankruptcies, international lawsuits, buyouts, and sudden public policy shifts that sent everybody scrambling. The dust is far from settling, too.
The bad news is that in a market this ferocious, emerging technologies have a hard time taking off. Currently we’re in a phase of oversupply, so the surplus will have to drain before new stuff enters the production lines . The good news is really good. Take a look at this graph. Module prices have plummeted—as much as 62% in the two years leading up to September 2012 .
So we’ve reached $1/Watt-peak for modules. What does this mean?
It means that now, there are sizable regions of the globe where solar PV is an economically viable way to make electricity, even without government subsidies. Specifically, these regions are sunnier parts of the developing world where liquid fuels are used for power, like much of India, parts of the Middle East, parts of Africa, or on islands like Hawaii and Bermuda. Moving into subsidized markets: retail grid_parity has already been reached for much of Australia . Even in Texas—who would have thought?—solar is now “highly competitive” with natural gas, reports Forbes .
The market has driven innovation so strongly that since 2011, focus has shifted to trimming the fat off installations as a whole. Developers are cutting down on what’s known as balance-of-system (BoS) costs—that is,“soft costs” like racking systems, metering software and paperwork. According to the RMI, this is where we’ll see lots of development in the immediate future [5, 6]. Additionally, innovations in manufacturing boost the affordability of, well, everything. And this is not to say that developments in PV cell technology have stopped, either.
So! Is solar PV finally going to beat out fossil fuels?
That’s a complicated question, and in fact, it’s not a very helpful one. I know I mentioned grid parity earlier, but this is only a vague benchmark, not an argument. The truth is that fossil fuels and solar PV have big qualitative differences. For one: because solar irradiation varies across our round planet, there can be no fixed global rate, i.e. no “dollars per barrel” like oil has. Nor is solar dispatchable—it can’t be turned on or off in the same way that fossil fuels can. Thirdly, as for rooftop PV, taking the step to install solar modules at your home still requires an up-front investment, of course. Solar PV vs. fossil fuels quickly becomes a case of apples and oranges.
While these differences might be obvious, their implications for the energy sector are less so. In the next section, I’ll tease one out.
rooftop solar’s edge
As it happens, when hordes of warm-blooded mammals live close to each other, they’ll use lots of electricity at the same times throughout the year. In fact, power companies build plants dedicated to dealing with this overflow of demand. These plants are called “peakers,” and most of the time, they just sit there, idling.
Now, it is understood that the chief incentive to connect your renewables to the grid is to earn money through an export_tariff. That’s well and good, but on a wider scale, there are invaluable security benefits to having power generated at many distributed sources rather than a few centralized ones. Think about it: under distributed generation, power is less susceptible to pretty much anything that could go wrong. Like intense peaks. A study done by Dan Shugar (by way of Stephen Lacey) throws this into relief: “If only 500 MW of solar PV had been deployed in the northeast U.S. to help alleviate demand for electricity, the August 2003 U.S.-Canadian blackout wouldn’t have happened. That blackout was the second largest in the world, causing between $7 and $10 billion in economic damage” . 500 MW of solar PV amounts to somewhere from 100,000 to 140,000 home installations. That’s between $50 and $100 thousand of economic damage prevented per household. To be fair, yes, a peaker would have prevented this… but it would have been used just one time.
So, why solar specifically? Aren’t these benefits to be found in any network of distributed generation? Maybe, but even then, solar still has an edge. In the buzz surrounding solar PV, you’ll hear words like modular and scalable and existing infrastructure… in so many words, this means that solar PV is easy to deal with. Think about it: solar modules can be installed and running in a matter of hours. They aren’t as site-specific as, say, wind turbines; i.e., roofs and sunshine don’t entail extreme local variations, nor is lengthy site-testing necessary. Also, there are no moving parts, and little maintenance is required. Take the IRENA’s word for it: “Solar PV also has the advantage that… installations can be ramped up rapidly to meet policy goals or electricity sector needs…. no other power generation technology shares this flexibility.” 
When you combine solar PV’s inherent scalability with a burgeoning market, you get a technology with a growth capacity that’s nothing short of viral. You get stats like this: in 2000, the world’s installed capacity of solar PV was 1½ Gigawatts, about the peak capacity of one large nuclear plant; in 2011, it was 67 Gigawatts .
Here’s to the expectation that solar PV is still only in its infancy.
- Feldman, David et al. PV Pricing Trends: Historical, Recent, and Near-Term Projections. NREL & Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. November 2012.
- Gabor, Andrew interviewed by Scott Clavenna: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Podcast-Innovations-in-PV-Manufacturing-Can-Help-Save-the-Solar-Market
- Bony, Lionel et al. Achieving Low-Cost Solar PV: Industry Workshop Recommendations for Near-Term Balance of System Cost Reductions. RMI. September 2010.
- IRENA: Solar Photovoltaics. Renewable Energy Technologies: Cost Analysis Series. June 2012.