Amid controversy, solar engineers seem to be making progress
Researchers say an important threshold may have been crossed
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Solar energy as a power source has become controversial in recent years. In the 1970s it had something of a “hippie” reputation. More recently, it has actually become a partisan issue.
Republicans have accused the Obama Administration of "crony capitalism" for backing government loans to solar company Solyndra, which later went bankrupt, owing the taxpayers millions. The GOP has consistently hammered Obama for favoring solar and other renewable energy enterprises over more traditional fossil fuels.
But the U.S. isn't alone in pushing energy from the sun. Germany, China and Japan have been leaders in backing solar as well. Is it a good bet or simply a pipe dream?
There is no question that the idea of solar energy has a lot of appeal, especially to individualists. If you want to unhook from the grid or simply live in a country less dependent on hostile energy sources, you probably look forward to a day when solar is a viable, mainstream energy source. Debates over the government's role in its development aside, the solar industry appears to be making some progress.
Though the company is still losing money, First Solar is a popular stock on Wall Street. It's had its ups and downs but Susquehanna Financial Group recently increased its price target from $28 to $40, based on the company's book value and future earnings potential.
First Solar provides solar energy components as well as complete solar systems. It sells products to investor-owned utilities, independent power developers and producers, commercial and industrial companies, and other system owners.
First Solar and its competitors produce photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity, collecting sunlight with large panels made up of hundreds of cells. The problem with that, of course, is that it takes a lot of cells, collecting a lot of sunlight, to produce meaningful amounts of electricity.
Too much cost, too little power
Critics complain that solar will never be practical because it simply costs too much to produce the systems and that they will never pay for themselves. They also point out that it requires a lot of energy, usually from fossil fuel, to produce the photovoltaic cells.
But researchers at Stanford University, not known as a haven for hippies or malingerers, point out that solar production has recently made strides in that area. They estimate that, for the first time since solar production kicked into high gear, the electricity generated by all of the world's installed solar photovoltaic panels probably eclipsed the amount of energy needed to make the cells, sometime in 2012.
That might seem a small accomplishment, but it has been a major threshold that some believe has been holding the industry back.
"This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides," said Michael Dale, a Stanford researcher. "Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, photovoltaic is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society."
Huge energy requirements
Part of the problem with making solar practical is the intense energy needed to produce solar panels. For example, silica rock must be melted at about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a lot of energy.
But producers continue to find more efficient ways to produce solar cells. The silicon wafers are now thinner and the process uses less highly refined materials.
Still, the energy source remains a subject of passionate debate, even in forums and comments sections on news stories on the subject. In comments about one recent solar story a poster going by “Bannor” answered critics who doubted solar's value by pointing to what he sees as a distinct advantage.
“In many places, daytime energy costs are MUCH higher, where the afternoon peak demand might drive utility prices up five or 10 times above normal,” he wrote. “This is usually when solar produces best so it very effectively reduces the need for expensive peaker plants, which typically create the most emissions per unit energy.”
And to solar advocates, that remains its enduring appeal. It's the Holy Grail of power sources – clean, natural and there day after day. And even if it never provides a major portion of an area's power needs, if it can cost-effectively provide a portion, that may be enough.
According to the New York Times, some energy producers have taken that approach. They've incorporated solar into the production of traditional energy sources, using it to increase the energy content of natural gas, and boil water to power steam turbines, a task once performed by coal.
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