A Bright Future for Solar Energy? Solar power is often offered as one of the most promising forms of renewable energy. How effective can solar power be, and how close is the solar power industry to being able to deliver on the promise of the technology?
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A Bright Future for Solar Energy?

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A Bright Future for Solar Energy?

A Bright Future for Solar Energy?

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A bit later in the hour, we'll be talking about election issues - science topics for election issues. They want to know what your suggestions are. What do you think should be talked about in this election season? What should be discussed among the candidates?

But first, here's comes the sun. We've been exploring alternative energies on this program - alternative energies that offer a real hope for helping to solve our global warming and energy independence problems.

In this hour, we're going to be looking at solar energy, and focusing on solar thermal energy. And that's where the heat from the sun is collected and focused by mirrors to heat up a fluid sort of like the solar hot water panels you may have in your roof, but in this case, much more intense, much more efficient, and being used today to make the electricity. This technology has been steadily moving forward, kind of, quietly in the background of all the other alternative energies we've been hearing about.

Well, today, we're going to talk about it and why it offers such promise. We'll also going to talk about solar panels, solar paint and the other solar advances that you may be familiar with. And what will it take to bring solar power to the mainstream? Maybe tax breaks, policy changes.

If you'd like to offer some suggestions, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. If you'd like to see a photo of a great solar thermal power on our Web site, go to sciencefriday.com.

Rhone Resch is the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. And he joins us today from our NPR studios here.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RHONE RESCH (President, Solar Energy Industries Association): Thank you, Ira. It's good to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Evan Schwartz is the writer and producer of NOVA episode, "Saved By the Sun." It's all about the solar power. He's also author of "Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors." And he joins us today from Richfield, Connecticut.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Evan.

Mr. EVAN SCHWARTZ (Writer and Producer, NOVA's "Saved By the Sun"; Author "Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors"): Well, thank you, Ira. Good to be with you.

FLATOW: The last time we talked - let me begin with, what is solar thermal energy and why are you so excited about it?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know most people think of - when they think of solar, they think of the rooftop panels, and that's photovoltaic panels that convert the light of the sun into energy. Solar thermal is different. It converts the heat of the sun or the solar radiation into energy. And the exciting thing is that it's not mainly for rooftops, but it's utility-scale solar. So you could create a field of solar collectors that's bigger than, for instance, New York City Central Park. And a utility can feed all that energy to hundreds of thousands of homes. So you get the scale that you need to really change things and reduced carbon emissions.

FLATOW: But you would need to put them some place?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: You would. And, you know, the first major solar thermal plant was actually built in the 1980s, and it was in the Mohave Desert. It's still there. It's been working very well for all this time. And it's called the Kramer Junction Plant. And it takes up, actually, twice the land of New York City Central Park. And it uses these reflective mirrors. They call them solar troughs because they're shaped like pigs' trough. And they concentrate the radiation of the sun to these translucent tubes that heat up a synthetic oil that's sent to a flash boiler and it just boils water and turns the turbine just like a normal steam turbine would. So you do need a lot of land and you need some investment to really get these things up and running.

FLATOW: Ron Resche, what kinds of investments are being made in solar these days? Are there enough investments that are sort of being quietly said, oh, you know, that's the kind of thing that's somewhere down the road?

Mr. RESCH: In 2007, we saw a solar market in the United States of about $2 billion. And that was primarily on the photovoltaic side. But very rapidly, as Evan described, we're seeing venture capital dollars and project investment dollars come into the solar thermal space. And in the last 18 months, there had been over 100 projects that have filed some form of permit with the Bureau of Land Management to build concentrating solar power plants on BLM lands in the southwest. So very rapidly, we're seeing Wall Street, we're seeing big independent power producers, and we're seeing entrepreneurs enter into the solar thermal space in the United States.

FLATOW: Can it really compete with the other kinds of energy?

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely. I mean, the beautiful thing about concentrating solar is it generates firm, dispatchable peak power, which is the most expensive electricity that we consumers pay. And when you look at the desert southwest, there is two things that they have - an overabundant south, the first of which is arid land, and the second of which is tremendous sunlight. If we can start to use some of our government-owned properties in the United States to generate clean carbon-free solar energy, then we all benefit in the long run.

FLATOW: Of course, such as the critics who had say, how are you going to get that electricity out of there?

Mr. RESCH: Well, there's no doubt you have to build transmission lines. And, you know, many of these places are remote. As Evan pointed out, the Kramer Junction facility or SEGS Plant is a 360 megawatt facility. They - that generates about enough electricity for 75,000 homes in the United States. When you look at the southwest, you have enough electricity, by far, to generate all - excuse me, enough potential to generate all the electricity in the United States. The problem is…

FLATOW: All of it?

Mr. RESCH: All of it. Absolutely. I mean, we have world-class solar resources in the United States, the best of any developed country in the world. The reality, though, is only less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our electricity comes from solar today. So with the right infrastructure development and with the right rules and regulations, you'll see solar take off in the southwest and really throughout all 50 states.

FLATOW: Evan, let me explore that a little bit more about how we could - where - give me a scenario. I know you've thought about this.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, one of the statistics I heard when we were researching the program for NOVA - and this was from the National Renewable Energy Lab - is that if you just took one-tenth of the land of Nevada, that would be enough land for a solar thermal facility to generate all the electricity that's needed for every home in the United States. Now, of course, as Rhone said and as you pointed out, you have to distribute that and you lose energy when you transmit it, so it's not a good idea to try to transmit electricity over thousands of miles. The best way to do it is to produce it closer to where the people live. But that's just gives you an idea.

And there's tremendous pressure now, of course, especially, in California and some of the areas out west that are growing fast to increase the amount of coal that's used to generate electricity. And there's a lot of coal - a lot of cheap coal out in the west, especially in the Wyoming area and Colorado and Montana. And that is very tempting. So there's this competition going on, you know, what is the best way to generate our electricity?

FLATOW: Rhone, there was always - when we talked about alternative energies, there's always been some sort of incentive the government has given, sort of a tax break to the production of wind power, solar power. Is there something like still going on for solar power?

Mr. RESCH: There is. Actually, in the 2005 energy bill, the first residential tax credits in over 20 years were created; and Congress also expanded the commercial tax credits. So if you're going to build a large concentrating solar power project, you get about a 30-percent tax credit on the total cost of installing that project.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tell us about what do you think would need to be invested? What kind of investment would be made to bring off - on a scale that you're talking about - a major solar energy centralized in one place, shipped out around the country.

Mr. RESCH: Well, right now, there is about 3.2 gigawatts, and I know that's a tough number to absorb. But 3.2 gigawatts of concentrating solar that have signed power purchase agreements with utilities in the southwest. What is really needed at this point is a stable policy environment. Those contracts have been signed. If we ensure that there are the, you know, the incentives are in place long enough to actually construct these power plants, they will get built because utilities need to generate clean renewable energy.

They need to have firm, dispatchable peak electricity, and in many cases, solar is going to be cheaper than natural gas-fired peak electricity and the market will work, so it's not that the government needs to give a handout to solar. What they need to provide is a stable policy environment similar to what they've provided to the clean coal industry, to the nuclear industry, to the oil industry for decades that we'd simply have only, you know, have not had that for solar.

FLATOW: Including connections and creating the grid and getting onto the grid, things like that.

Mr. RESCH: Oh, there's already, you know, a tremendous grid infrastructure in the southwest it's really getting access to that electricity infrastructure, the long interstate transmission lines. But absolutely as our demand for electricity continues to grow, we will need to build new transmission lines to bring geothermal, to bring wind, to bring solar electricity to our homes in our businesses.

FLATOW: You know, we talked about the economy declining and ways to, you know, create new jobs, bring people back and it would seem to me if you invested in a lot of money, some of this money we're talking about giving back. You invested in new technologies that would create new industries and new jobs. That might spur the economy a bit.

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely. In 2007, the solar industry created 6,000 new jobs in the United States and these are manufacturing jobs, construction jobs, engineering jobs, roofers, electricians, I mean, the kinds of jobs that are the backbone of our economy. Very quickly, we're seeing solar become an economic engine in the United States and as long as we continue to encourage the greater use of solar both with utilities as well as providing stable policy at the federal level, you'll see job growth, and I think this was recognized by Congress in the Senate version of the economic stimulus package that came out of the finance committee earlier this week. They extended tax credits for all renewable and energy-efficiency technologies because those dollars go directly into the economy and create jobs.

FLATOW: Evan Schwartz's "Saved By the Sun" focuses on Germany as a leader in solar energy generation. What - could we emulate what they did it all?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, it's interesting what happens is if the whole country takes the lead and in Germany, they enacted this renewable energy law in 2001 and they, in the next five years after that, they created about 170,000 jobs in the solar area and mainly because the way this worked is they forced the utilities in that country to buy any solar capacity that was generated so - and they made it at a very attractive price starting at about 50 cents per kilowatt hour so it incentivized all these people, average farmers even.

We interviewed a pig farmer out in Germany who thought, you know, this is a better use of my land to put solar panels out there and you could sell it to the utility and make, you know, a certain amount of money. I think it was about $60,000 from profit per year selling this back to the grid. And people are putting panels on their roofs and selling it back to the grid that way and it's really put Germany on this incredible growth path where they're to get about 20 percent of all their electricity from renewables by 2020, which was the goal of the plan.

FLATOW: All right. We have to cut you off, Evan, because we're run out of time. But I want to thank you for taking time to talk with - you know, we're going to come back after the break so stay with us. We'll talk with Evan Schwartz and Rhone Resch so stay with us to talk more about solar and maybe some things that you think we should be doing. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about solar energy with Evan Schwartz, writer and producer of the NOVA episode, "Saved By the Sun." Rhone Resch, president of Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington.

Our number, 1800-989-8255.

Evan, you were talking about Germany's effort to have everybody become solar electricity producer. It sounds a little heavy at 50 cents a kilowatt hour is very - a little too pricey for this country, I would think.

Mr. RESCH: Yeah, that was the original incentive and the way they are doing it is they're ratcheting that down every year, so now, it's down to 40 cents and then it goes to 30 and 20. And I think by 2010, they will take out all those incentives because they will have spurred the industry. And yeah, well, the downside of that is it does increase the cost of electricity for everyone. It's added about $15 per month to everyone's bill. But, you know, they have the shared goal of trying to replace coal and nuclear in their country with renewables.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Rhone, what kind of competition do you - from the big boys?

Mr. RESCH: Well, it's interesting. Going forward, you know, the demand for electricity in the United States will grow by about 2 percent per year, so we really need almost all new energy sources and in particular, when you start looking at the growing communities of the southwest like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Those areas are growing faster than other places. And frankly, we can't continue to rely upon technologies that use water for generating electricity. Right now, 40 percent of all the water used in the southwest goes to generating electricity from coal-fired power plants that is highly unsustainable. We need to start shifting over to carbon-smart and water-smart technologies in those areas.

So, you know, I think going forward, yes, we face competition but I think once we have regulations that monetize the price of carbon in this country and we have incentives for solar for the long term that are similar to incentives enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry, we'll see solar be the lowest cost option in just a few years.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the more conventional solar panels we think about, the ones that's on the roofs. Are there new technologies that are helping to bring down the cost of a typical solar panel, something like thin films, we've been hearing about, even paints, things like that?

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely. I mean, what we've seen for photovoltaics or PV panels, is the price has come down by about 90 percent in the last 20 years. Many people don't realize that.

FLATOW: Ninety percent?

Mr. RESCH: Ninety percent compared to what it was in 1980 and 1985. It's just been a spectacular decrease in cost due in large part to the scale off in manufacturing in photovoltaics. And so we've seen investment from companies, we've seen innovation on the electronics side, we've continue to see efficiency improvements. But where we are right now is really on innovations in manufacturing and innovations on the scale of manufacturing. Our plants are changing from 10 or 30 megawatt plants to 200 megawatt plants to gigawatt-scale plants. And once you start having that economy of scale, you're going to see the price of solar continue to drop very rapidly and we expect it will drop in half within the next five years if things continue at this rate.

FLATOW: Evan Schwartz, is there competition for the silicon that goes into these solar panels from Silicon Valley, you know?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. There is a worldwide shortage of silicon now for solar panels. I think there's been a crossover point - more silicon is used in photovoltaics than in computers now so a lot of manufacturers are turning to other materials - gallium arsenide and other things - that could be used for thin film. As you mentioned, solar paint using nano particles, titanium oxide…

FLATOW: You - let me just stop you. You just paint on something? You paint the solar…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah, the way it works and it's mainly a laboratory thing now…


Mr. SCHWARTZ: …is you use a nanotech-based paint and you could paint it on top of a sort of an aluminized Mylar that conducts electricity, a thin film and when you put the solar paint over it, when the sun hits it, it knocks loose electrons just like it does with silicon and those moving electrons become the electricity that can go to the inverter box in your basement. So in the future, if they can get the cost down, this would be a major leap forward it would just be a lot easier to paint on a solar panel onto your house.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Jack(ph) in Oakland. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JACK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for the enlightening conversation. I have a question about the embodied CO2 in energy cost for solar panels. I've heard recently from somebody at PG&E that the embodied energy needed to make a solar panel is greater than that of burning the natural gas that we need we were just going to mixing an amount of energy from natural gas versus producing everybody's solar panels. Could you address that and probably other life cycle analysis questions about what are (unintelligible) kind of energy (unintelligible) it takes that mention the silicon - we're in a worldwide shortage now does not mean we have to give up some other things. Please talk about the life cycle.

FLATOW: Okay. Good question.

Mr. RESCH: It is a good question. And, you know, we've actually had to battle this over the years because there's been a lot of misinformation that's been presented on renewable energy and how energy intensive it is. For solar panel to be manufactured, sure, it requires energy and it's a fairly energy-intensive process that the amount of energy required to manufacture that solar panel is paid for in somewhere between one-and-a-half in two years. So basically, a solar panel that you put on your house with a 25-year warranty from the manufacturer is going to generate carbon-free energy for the next 23.5 years after you've paid, if you will, that carbon production that was required to manufacture the solar panel. And so, you know, when you look at, you know, natural gas for example, you still have an input that comes in, you still have a fuel stream that is going to increase in price over time.

And, you know, the amount of emissions that comes from a kilowatt of natural gas is substantially higher than what you get from solar because there is zero emissions that come from solar panels when they're generating electricity.

FLATOW: I would think that if you could get a solar paint that you could paint upon anything - roofs, buildings, highways, the lines in the highways, you know?

Mr. RESCH: You could, Ira, but you know, I think we shouldn't be fixing on solar paint in the sense of - you're absolutely right - in the future, we absolutely be able to do that. But right now, you can go out and you can install solar on your roof and it becomes your roofing system for your house. It makes your roof last longer, it's going to generate free electricity for you for the next 25 years. You can reduce your electric bill down to zero right now. Right today, we don't have to wait for new technologies to be invented. And perhaps even more importantly, you can claim energy independence. You can do something to help reduce our independence on (unintelligible) foreign sources of energy and help secure the electricity grid for all Americans by installing solar.

FLATOW: Will I get tax credits if I want to put solar panels on my house?

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Give me an idea of what kind of credits we're talking.

Mr. RESCH: Well, I'm not sure where you live exactly, Ira, but there are both state and federal tax credits. At the federal level, you get a $2,000 tax credit so as a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the taxes that you spend that you pay to the federal government…

FLATOW: You did this on your own house, correct?

Mr. RESCH: That's correct. Yes.

FLATOW: Let's talk about your house.

Mr. RESCH: Sure. So I installed a system on my house that generates nearly 100 percent of our electricity. It costs about $35,000. Up front, the state provided a $17,000 rebate, other than the District of Columbia, so I'd like to think we're a state or soon to be one and we skipped voting rights? They gave us a $17,000 grant and I got the $2,000 tax credits so at the end of the day when I put that solar system into my mortgage, my mortgage went up about $60 or $70 per month. But the cost of electricity, the amount of electricity I saved was over $100 a month. So I had a positive cash flow from day one for installing solar in my house and that's going to last for the next 25 years.

FLATOW: So you're off the grid now?

Mr. RESCH: Nope. Still connected to the grid. I generate excess electricity during the day and my meter runs backwards. We have what's called net metering in Washington, D.C. and that at nighttime, my meter runs forward like normal so almost using the grid as a battery backup system if you will.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: And Rhone, I think it's about 40 states have net metering at this point?

Mr. RESCH: That's right, Evan. The problem is most of the states are different. There's not a uniform net metering, or whereas it called interconnection laws in this country, and so if you're an installer and you want to design a system to put in, let's say in Connecticut. You can't take that same system and go put it into New Jersey. That you have to redesign it and have it recertified and it has to meet different specifications, so it artificially keeps the price of solar higher. If we create uniform interconnection standards, uniform net metering laws, then you will absolutely see the price of solar come down.

FLATOW: Did you have any trouble buying the panels yourself? Or did you need an installer who was the company to do it for you?

Mr. RESCH: Well, I'm not a big fan of climbing up on top of roofs on ladders, to be honest with you, Ira, so I absolutely went with an installer, you know. I went online, I - there's a number of good Web sites including ours which is seia.org and you can find installers in your area that are licensed and certified and they're the ones who actually procure all of the equipment and they'll come out and show you what it looks like, make sure that solar will work on your house and give you some estimates on the costs and the savings and really help you walk through the process for getting both your state and local rebates as well as the federal tax credit.

FLATOW: Wow. Sounds terrific. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us.

Rhone Resch is president of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, in his solar house. And Evan Schwartz is writer and producer of the NOVA episode, "Saved By the Sun" and author of the book "Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors."

Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. RESCH: Thank you, Ira.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thanks, Ira. It's a pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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