Sunday, February 22, 2004

Solar energy's cloudy past / Advocates say 50-year-old industry is finally in a position to heat up

The first solar cells were introduced fifty years ago this year. Solar energy has been "just around the corner" for the last three decades, and according to the industry joke; "it's still just around the corner."

But now it may be an industry whose time has come:

"Solar energy power generation is growing 20 percent to 30 percent a year, and that's not shabby,'' said Roberta Gamble, an energy analyst at Frost & Sullivan, the Palo Alto market research firm that recently completed a report on the industry.

Daniel Shugar, president of PowerLight, a Berkeley firm that installs solar systems, said the fastest-growing niche in the industry is putting rooftop arrays in business settings, where they can recoup their installation costs in four to eight years.

"Today we're doing systems for half the cost of the systems we did seven years ago,'' said Shugar, who is among those who believe solar will eventually live up to its great expectations. "I don't see this as taking another 50 years.''

Over the last 20 years, improvements in manufacturing techniques have lowered the cost of solar cells, while growing use has led to further economies of scale.

"Basically every three years, the overall industry volume doubles, and for every doubling of volume you reduce costs 18 percent, '' said Tim Woodward, a venture capitalist at Nth Power, a San Francisco firm that invests in energy technologies.

Japan and Germany have put in place incentives and policy changes that have made them centers of the industry, while programs in California that defray installation costs and allow users to sell electricity to the utilities have spurred industry growth.

Various estimates say Japan has 40 percent of the world's installed solar cells, followed by Germany with 20 percent and the United States with 12 percent.

Hayes, the environmentalist, says Japanese and German government support gives manufacturers an edge in what could become one of the growth industries of the future.

"Someone is going to do for photovoltaics what Henry Ford did for automobiles, and it pains me deeply that, at this moment, it seems extremely unlikely that someone is going to be an American,'' Hayes said.

One area where solar energy technology has already had a major influence is in fiber optic communication. Electronic data from computers are routed to a laser, which converts the information to photons and pumps them through glass filaments. At the receiving end, a charge-coupled device -- an invention that operates on the same principle as the solar cell -- converts those photons back into electrons and electronic data.

Solar energy is steadily creating a market for itself. Our evergy policies would be well served by giving solar power a central role in any future plans.


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