The government’s Department of Energy has been looking for alternative energy sources for years. The environmental challenges posed by fossil fuel consumption and the instability caused by heavy reliance on foreign energy suppliers have reduced the desirability of relying on that resource for the long-term. The challenge is to make an alternative fuel source cost-competitive with fossil fuels. This has been made slightly more difficult since the recent introduction of inexpensive, shale-sourced natural gas supplies. That development is tempered, however, by its accompanying increase in environmental concerns.
The solar electricity generation industry begins
Using solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity as a viable energy source has been a focus since 1954, when three Bell Lab scientists used a PV battery to power a toy windmill and a radio. That event triggered significant subsequent investment in, and sustained focus on, fundamental PV science, applied research and development, and technological maturation in the deployment of viable, scalable PV systems.
On a global scale, PV developments are creating solar energy systems that promise to bring clean power to communities that have never before experienced electricity. For example, in 2014, a French-German science collaboration achieved a 46 percent efficiency rating on a redesigned solar cell, dramatically increasing the cell’s potential electricity output. Deploying such a powerful PV system in a rural village, for example, would be transformative for that population.
Over the decades since the Bell Labs success, the federal government has invested heavily in the infrastructure for advancing PV developments. By encouraging partnerships among researchers, industry leaders and governmental agencies, federal support has been crucial in fostering breakthroughs in technologies and deployment opportunities.
Financial incentives increase interest
In 2005, the U.S. Energy Policy Act specifically targeted solar powered electricity by instituting the 30 percent “Investment Tax Credit” (ITC) for installations of residential and commercial solar energy systems. That policy implementation spurred immense growth in the solar energy industry and has contributed to its increasing influence in the American economy.
- In 2007 alone, the ITC was credited with doubling the national level of installed photovoltaic (PV) systems.
- In 2008, because of the popularity of the ITC, Congress extended the 30 percent ITC limit for another eight years. This allowed PV electricity generation to become the fastest growing energy source in the U.S.
- Since 2009, the cost for PV systems dropped from $7.50 per installed Watt to $4.70 in 2013 (and it has dropped even further since).
- Between 2005 and 2014, the number of people employed in all aspects of the industry grew from 15,000 to 174,000.
Financial incentives increase research
In 2011, the U.S. Energy Department introduced the “Sunshot Initiative.” The program rewards scientific research and discoveries that will reduce the total installed cost of solar energy systems to $.06 per kilowatt hour (kWh) by 2020. Its “Incubator Program” has provided federal funding grants that have spurred more than $1.7 billion in equity and venture capital investments in solar PV developments. Beginning in 2014, SunShot’s “Catalyst Program” has been assisting with the coordination between states and industry participants to reduce the soft costs of implementing PV systems. Streamlined permitting, connection and other processes have reduced the cost of PV implementations to both communities and PV system owners.
States join the solar power movement
As of 2013, all 50 states had implemented some form of initiative to spur local investments, and solar PV electricity ranked second among all sources of newly installed generation capacity. By 2014, the country had installed more than 20,000 megawatts (MW) of cumulative solar electric capacity, which is powering more than 4 million average American homes.
Utility-sized PV generation is next goal
While state and federal incentives to install and deploy residential and commercial PV systems have been pursued, there has also been much energy focused on the development of utility-sized PV power plants. Currently, fossil-fueled electricity generation has been costly to the American public, both economically and environmentally. Fossil fuels are most often used to generate utility-scaled electricity, but finding, extracting and transporting those fuels from where they lie to where they are consumed is expensive and contributes to pollution. Solar PV electricity is powered by the sun, which has no generation costs. However, generating sufficient solar PV power in the vast quantities needed by today’s utility providers (at a reasonable price and with comparable reliability) has been the biggest challenge for utility energy providers.
Several utility-scaled PV technologies exist
Today, there are several solar technologies that are capable of producing utility-scale PV electricity. Purchased by wholesalers, this electricity provides customers with the benefits of a fixed rate per kilowatt hour, even at peak demand times. Typically, fossil-fueled electricity is most expensive at peak demand times, so this opportunity puts a control on the otherwise fluctuating cost for electricity when it is most used.
Utility-scaled “Concentrating Solar Power” (CSP)
This technology uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s DC electric energy into the inverters that change it to AC. The exponentially larger capacity of AC electricity generated is used to drive steam turbines, much like other electric power plants do. The mirrors can be configured in a “power tower” formation, a “parabolic trough” formation or even in conjunction with a “compact linear Fresnel reflector” to gather and focus the sun’s energy onto the inversion/electricity generation aspect of the system. There are currently more than 1,400 MW of energy generated by CSP plants in the United States, with another 390 MW expected to come online within the next year.
The United States is clearly committed to providing citizens with inexpensive, clean and reliable electricity, and is banking on the solar PV industry to assist it to achieve that goal. RGS Energy has been supplying solar energy systems throughout the country for almost 40 years. To find out how solar energy could power your home, visit www.rgsenergy.com.