In February of 2014, 40 minutes outside of Las Vegas, the Ivanpah solar-thermal plant made its debut. Able to deliver 377 MW of power to 140,000 southern California homes, it’s “a sea of 347,000 mirrors, reflecting the rays of the desert sun on to boilers mounted on three 460-foot towers”. (The Economist) It’s an astoundingly futuristic sight.
In 2013, solar “represented 29% of new electricity capacity” (The Economist) with output having doubled since 2008. Still, in 2014 less than 1% of America’s electricity came from solar. “The Department of Energy wants solar to provide 27% of America’s electricity by 2050, up from less than 1% today.” (The Economist)
But are solar-thermal plants like Ivanpah the way of the future?
As we’ve seen time and time again, development on such scales can usually be connected to some sort of direct funding source, usually governmental, that are notoriously unreliable to stay in place for extended periods of time. The federal loan offers which funded the creation and construction of Ivanpah have since expired.
Besides, photovoltaics are the next hot thing.
From 2012 to 2014, 200,000 homes and businesses have installed rooftop solar, quickly realizing steep financial savings. “Even David Crane, the boss of NRG, co-owner of Ivanpah, says that photovoltaic installations are the future.” (The Economist) In 2013, half of America’s new photovoltaic installations took place in California. Again, this boon is largely related to the largely expired “$2.2 billion California Solar Initiative, which gave cash to homes or firms that went solar”. (The Economist) Even still, purveyors of solar believed installations will retain their staggering momentum even without the state program.
Similar perseverance was seen in 2017 when “the federal government’s solar investment tax credit drops from 30% to 10%”. (The Economist)
Even with seemingly unshakable, resilient consumer support for photovoltaics, there are some who feel threatened—namely utilities. The sort of localized, energy-independence that comes with solar undermines the very model on which utility companies operate and depend. Trade groups like The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) warn “that distributed generation could do to energy companies what the internet did to newspapers.” (The Economist)
Still, the country is adapting. In 2014, “all but seven states have adopted net-metering policies”. (The Economist) That number is now all but two states. Policies like net-metering “credit solar-enabled homes and businesses for the excess energy they feed back into the grid.” (The Economist) In a sort of parallel to those who are outspoken against individuals not paying any or their fair share in taxes, some utilities argue that those who are benefiting the most off of such net-metering policies are doing so without contributing their fair share towards the costs of maintaining the grid. Attempts by the like of Arizona Public Service and Georgia power to “level the playing field” have been stopped in their tracks.
The truth of the matter is, regulators have it within their power to cushion utilities from the effects of these changes. Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association sees three solutions: 1) infrastructure fees applied to solar users, 2) itemized billing, and 3) splitting energy used and consumed into separate transactions. The problem becomes establishing rates and prices.
Hesitance and resistance aside, demand is speaking for itself, and setting the course for the future. Besides, the US is behind the times. As of 2015, the US ranked 4th in terms of total photovoltaic MW capacity at 25,620. China was ranked at number 1 with 42,530 MW of capacity, followed by Germany and Japan. In terms of the W per capita in 2015, the US ranked number 11 at 79.6. For context, Germany was ranked number 1 at 491.9 and France which was ranked number 10 still managed to pull a per capita W of 102.2. (Dunlap, 2019, Table 9.4). Of course, like with all energy forms, there are trade-offs. Solar is “the only single-energy resource that has the capability to provide enough energy to fulfill all of our needs that is indefinitely renewable” (Dunlap, 2019, 326), but the installation or use of photovoltaic arrays “would be impractical or uneconomical at some locations on earth” (Dunlap, 2019, 325) such as northern and southern latitudes which would provide low efficiencies or fluctuate too greatly depending on the season.
To be considered are also the mass scale redesign of our energy infrastructure which would be needed for any larger conversion of reliability on solar as a primary energy source. At the moment, the price point of fossil fuels is still a more attractive chase point for those more focused on the here and now of business, climactic tragedies aside. Nevertheless, solar provides “an attractive alternative to diminishing fossil fuel supplies” (Dunlap, 2019), and major countries around the world appear, at least, to be placing their bets on solar.
The Economist. “Let the Sun Shine.” 8 March 2014, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2014/03/07/let-the-sun-shine. Accessed 19 October 2021.
Dunlap, R. A. (2019). Sustainable Energy, SI Edition (Second ed.). Cengage Learning.