Getting Solar Power For Less Thousands of megawatts of solar-generated power might not see the light of day if Congress doesn't act soon. Ira Flatow also looks at how you can bring solar to your sockets faster, without taking out a second mortgage.
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Getting Solar Power For Less

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Getting Solar Power For Less

Getting Solar Power For Less

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This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. Yesterday, Al Gore's call for a massive national effort to make America energy-independent in 10 years received a lot of different kinds of reviews. And much of that independence, he said, will depend upon the development of alternative energies like wind and solar on a very large and intensive scale like our 10-year program to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. Some states are not waiting for a moon shot though. They have already asked their utility companies to build alternative energy sources like wind and solar farms.

For example, Arizona has hired the Spanish company, Abengoa, to build the largest solar plant in the world 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. Solar power executives though, are biting their nails waiting to see whether Congress is going to pass an investment tax credit this year. These executives say that without a guarantee that the credit will be there, they can not commit to the megawatt-producing facilities that they have in the works. We hear a lot of talk from our senators and representatives and our presidential candidates about energy independence, so why no action on the tax credit so far this year which is due to run out?

This hour, we'll tackle the solar piece of the alternative energy puzzle from megawatt - thousand-megawatt producing plants to smaller kilowatt-producing photovoltaic panels and if you'd like to talk about solar energy and questions about solar, suggestions or maybe you're installing solar yourself, and you can give us some tips on how to do that? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. And let me introduce my guest. Rhone Resch is the President of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. He joins by phone. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. RHONE RESCH (Solar Energy Industries Association): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Fred Morse is a senior adviser of U.S. Operations for Abengoa Solar. He's a long time solar industry watcher and he's also in our NPR studio in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Morse.

Dr. FRED MORSE (Senior Adviser, U.S. Operations for Abengoa Solar): Thank you, thank you.

FLATOW: Let me start with you, Fred, are you waiting for these tax credits to be renewed?

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely yes.

FLATOW: Tell us why they're so important.

Dr. MORSE: Well, when you want to build a power plant, any kind, but in particular a solar plant, you negotiate a price with the utility. You say we can provide solar power at this price and if they agree, a contract is signed. From that moment on, every minute, every day that you have to wait, the price of steel goes up, the price of concrete goes up, all of the commodities and in addition, the debt and equity. The investors cannot invest because they don't know if the tax credit will be there and there are delays and it just causes - it wrecks havoc with the planning.

FLATOW: This deal with Arizona, is that in jeopardy?

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

FLATOW: So, it could fall through, this giant solar power plant?

Dr. MORSE: It could fall through if this credit is not extended.

FLATOW: How - is there a time line that, you know, this year's tax credit was not extended. They waited till the end of February to get it signed. Can you wait till next February for this?

Dr. MORSE: Till February of '09?


Dr. MORSE: It would - it seems extremely difficult to wait that long. The problem is also that Arizona Public Service, a very forward thinking utility, made a commitment to solar energy basically turning away from fossil-based fuel to use the state's tremendous solar resource. But if the plant can't be built at the date that we said it would, 2011, they have to buy another resource and they're very likely to say sorry guys but we'll just have to revert to our natural gas plant.

FLATOW: What's your take on this, Fred? I mean, Rhone. I'm sorry. Rhone, what's your take on this?

Mr. RESCH: Not a problem, Ira. You know, I think, what's important for your listeners to realize is that the investment tax credit for solar really levels the playing field with other sources of energy. Every source that we use today to generate electricity or gasoline is subsidized by the federal government to some extent. By extending the investment tax credit for solar, we're not getting special treatment, rather, we're getting - the playing field is being levelized so that we can lower the upfront cost of solar and make it available to tens of millions of people throughout the United States. So, we're really emphasizing the fact that this extension has to occur quickly, otherwise, we're going to see tens of thousands of jobs lost to Germany, Japan, and China.

FLATOW: So, what is your take on what is holding up this bill?

Mr. RESCH: Right now, we're really stuck in kind of a partisan bickering. I mean, it's almost as if, you know, you've got the Democrats and the Republicans both agreeing that we need to extend tax credits for solar wind and other resources but they can't come to an agreement on how to actually pay for these provisions. It's almost as if a terminally ill patient gets to the hospital and you get there and you're like doctor, I need surgery immediately and you have two doctors who start to bicker on how they're going to go about and do the surgery and instead of actually fixing the student - the patient, you're watching the patient die right there on the table. That's kind of the position we're in as partisan politics continues to bicker here in Washington.

FLATOW: Fred, you read it the same way?

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely. I think that both parties agree that with oil and gas and other conventional fuels being heavily subsidized, they agree that solar, and that renewable energy needs some support initially to get into the market but they are truly fighting over if and how to pay for it.

FLATOW: And this would help all renewable energies, correct?

Dr. MORSE: Correct.

FLATOW: Not just for solar. Is there politics involved about tax credits or tax release for the oil industry here that they're afraid of?

Mr. RESCH: Well, I think there initially was an effort to roll back certain incentives to the oil and gas industry to pay for renewables. But we're at a point, with respect to our energy crisis in this country, that we need all sources going forward and I think Congress is really at a position of saying listen, we'll maintain those incentives but let's make sure we pass tax credits for those emerging technologies that are really going to make an immediate difference. Right now, Ira, you can't build a new nuclear power plant, you can't build a new coal fire power plant and over the course of the next ten years, the energy information administration suggests that we're going to see demand increase by about 20 percent in this country. That means the only technologies that can provide new sources of electricity in the next decade are going to be wind, solar and natural gas. And I think you're going to very quickly find that wind and solar are going to be the cheapest alternatives of those three.

FLATOW: How many megawatts, Rhone, are at stake, are we waiting for, are potentially cancelable?

Mr. RESCH: Well, you know. We're looking at this next year, OK? What happens between now and the first quarter of 2009 and there are currently 4,500 megawatts of utility scale power plants that have signed power purchase agreements which Fred was just describing. All of those plants are scheduled to be mothballed if the tax credit is not extended. That's just reconcentrating solar. You're then looking at hundreds and hundreds of megawatts of photovoltaics as well. And perhaps, more importantly, is the jobs and the global competitiveness in a very fast emerging industry. We estimate that in 2009 alone if these tax credits are not extended, we will lose 39,000 jobs here in the United States and almost nine billion dollars of the economic investment. So very quickly, we've gone from being an economic engine in the United States to being another industry on the unemployment line.

FLATOW: Does your gut tell you that this will get done this year?

Mr. RESCH: You know six months ago, when I was on the show, yes. My gut said yes.

FLATOW: I remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RESCH: And thanks for having me back.

FLATOW: It's gut-churning now time. It's gut-checking time.

Mr. RESCH: It is. And a critical thing to point out here, it's an election year, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RESCH: And this tax credit is absolutely, you know, critical for many states throughout the United States and I think it's going to be difficult for senators to come home. Senators who have filibustered this bill seven times already this year. It's going to be difficult for them to come home in August you know, and with a straight face saying I'm trying to do something about the energy crisis we have in this country, yet I continue to vote against solar energy.

FLATOW: What is the, as we say, the drop dead deadline on getting the spend - when do they go home for a recess? It's the election year, they're going to be going home in September, right?

Mr. RESCH: Well, they're going home August 1st, first of all, for August recess. And you know it's absolutely critical that they take steps to pass these provisions before they leave for August recess. But if for some reason they drop the ball, then they'll be back right after the Republican National Convention for about three weeks in September and that's a very short time period to have kind of the entire industry in balance waiting for the Senate to take action.

FLATOW: How much money are we talking about that's being held - the investments that are waiting here? Do you have any ballpark figure on that?

Dr. MORSE: As Rhone said, there are about 4,500 megawatts of signed contract. That probably represents 18 to 20 billion dollars of private investment that is ready to be made. And plus you've got a comparable amount of state incentives available. So we're talking about billions and we're talking about construction jobs, 20,000 to 25,000 construction jobs, a lot of manufacturing-associated assembly work. It's a very significant amount of economic activity that's in limbo.

Mr. RESCH: Ira, something to point out, I think, that's absolutely critical as well is you know we need to start making an investment in our carbon-free future today. And you know, these tax credits don't set a global warming policy for this country, but what it does do is it creates a foundation of investments so that Wall Street gets involved with the solar industry. So big corporations who were making investments and new factories or new power plants start to see that hey, this is an economic industry. And very quickly, we go from being a small part of the energy mix to a substantial part of our energy future.

FLATOW: And tax credits are the reason that Europe has been able to go so far ahead of us.

Dr. MORSE: Yeah, that's right. That put incentives in place in Germany. It's not a tax credit. It's called a feed-in tariff. But they put incentives in place in Germany that lasted for 20 years. Spain did the same thing and you know very quickly, Germany which has the solar resources that are equivalent - meaning the amount of sunlight that falls on Germany is equivalent to Anchorage, Alaska. They've leaped frogged us and they install about eight times as much solar each year in Germany as we do in the United States. And the pathetic thing about the solar credits here in the U.S. is when they were created, they're only created for two years. You can't build an industry on a two-year tax credit.

FLATOW: You think it will be a campaign issue this year?

Dr. MORSE: We're certainly going to make it one. You know we are putting together a solar voting card that will have a very clear break out of how every house member and every senator has voted on solar-specific legislation. And we're going to do everything we can to get that out, so that people who care about making an investment in clean technologies, like solar, have a chance to understand how their elected officials have voted for, or against, the solar energy this past congress.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk more with Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association and Fred Morse of the Abengoa Solar. He's the senior adviser of the U.S. Operations. And your calls at 1-800-989-8255. Also, in Second Life, you can go over to our Science Friday Island and get a questionnaire. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about solar energy and the tax credits, not just for solar, but for all the alternative energy sources. And research that tax credits that are waiting that are set to run out at the end of the year that are very much needed by the industry to compete with oil. Although I tell you, here in the northeast and I live in New England, the price of oil is getting so high that it is approaching the price of electric heating. Hartford Courant had a story this week about showing the graph for electric. And you know it's so expensive to heat with electricity but the price of oil is getting so high that it's now going to be matching it soon.

Dr. MORSE: And I would like to just make a related point on that. The price of conventional energy is likely independent of carbon policy to double in the next five years. Why? Because of commodity prices, because of the power block. Those prices are going up. If you - if a utility invests in a solar energy plant, once that plant is built, it's like a 30-year mortgage. The price is fixed. There is no other resource that the utility can bring on and know what the price will be a year from now, five years, 10 years, 30 years. So by going to renewables, would basically hedge against fuel uncertainty, carbon policy fuel risk, the country is building in stability and a great economic value. And so, people like you and others who are looking at their energy prices increasing, they'll be something in the mix that will not increase period at all.

FLATOW: You raise an interesting point and a point that peripherally is made by conservative economists, conservative candidates who say, we'll you know, why don't we then let the market decide? Why don't we - why do - government should not interfere with private industry in giving them tax credits or something like this. Eventually, you're going to reach the break even point with oil, why not just let the market decide this?

Dr. MORSE: You know, Ira, those arguments, I think, fall really hollow when you look at the reality of what policy and energy exist today. And you look at the oil industry, it is a heavily subsidized industry. The coal industry is heavily subsidized. Both of those have been subsidized for almost a hundred years. And so, I think it's very difficult for a new emerging industry like solar to you know be thrown into a marketplace that's developed over the last century and say, OK, you know the water is fine, get in and sink or swim when your big brother has frankly you know, been - had a life jacket for the last hundred years. And so, you know. I think as we go forward, we need to make sure we have a level playing field. And if the oil industry, and the coal, and the nuclear industries are going to be subsidized through federal policy, then we should be providing the same kind of lift up for solar and wind.

FLATOW: Before we move on, one last question. I think I know the answer to this but I think I need to ask it anyhow and that is Al Gore's statement yesterday where he said we could have in ten years the equivalent you know of putting a man on the moon if we put out the same kind of efforts into that. We could get rid of oil altogether, all fossil fuels altogether. Do you believe that is possible? That we could put together a plan of alternative energies that would do away with fossil fuels within ten years?

Dr. MORSE: You know, I think it'll be difficult to make the transition completely away from fossil fuels - simply because of all of the capital equipment, and homes and businesses that would have to be replaced. But the resource exists and I think a lot can be done within the next ten years. So a substantial amount of our electricity and our power can be provided from renewables. Just to give you a perspective, I mean, the United States has some of the best solar resources of any country in the developed world. Yet today, solar represents one-sixth of one percent of all our electricity generation. If you just look at rooftops, just the roofs that are available through the United States that aren't shaded, that don't have chimneys that face the south, that's about 15 percent of all the total roofs. If you put solar on those roofs Ira, you will generate 50 percent of all the electricity needed by this country. So very simply, we got the available roof space. Why don't we start to create policies that create the jobs and create the manufacturing here and actually put that resource to use. It seemed to me to make a lot of sense.

FLATOW: And Fred, there is enough - certainly enough land out there to build those utility power plants?

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely. We've looked at satellite data that identifies where the solar resources, the greatest for concentrating solar energy. You know it has to be the direct. It can't be the diffused or scattered radiation. So we look at that, then we filter out mountains and cities, places where you couldn't build a power plant. What's left are the sweet spots for concentrating solar power. There are tens of thousands of square miles of flat, presently unproductive land that could be used and you could generate multiples and multiples of the country's energy. You would need, of course, to have transmission to bring the power out. But the resource is large enough and when you add the solar resource to the wind, the geothermal, the biomass, I think that Vice-President Gore's vision is a reachable one. It would take time. I mean here we are trying to get one 280-megawatt plant built online five years after we sign the contract and we can't get started. So it's going to take a massive policy framework and it's a worthwhile target.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to add a little element here and let's say you don't want to wait for the government to get its act together on a larger energy policy and you want to act now. You want solar now but you probably think hey, solar panels, I can't afford them. Well, maybe solar could be in your budget and soon in your sockets. Prices are coming down. Lots of states are offering incentives to consumers to get solar gong in their homes. Or maybe you can start small with a solar-powered water heater. Joining me now to talk more about it is Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society. He's also a publisher of the magazine Solar Today. Welcome to Science Friday, Mr. Collins.

Mr. BRAD COLLINS (Executive Director, American Solar Energy Society): Thank you very much, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. OK. You live in New Jersey, correct?

Mr. COLLINS: I live in Colorado.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, let me change that, Colorado. Let's just say I'm saying hypothetically you live in New Jersey and you want to put solar on your house. Because I love New Jersey. You want to put solar on your house. Where do you start?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, that's a great question. It's a question we get all the time. The first thing one needs to do in trying to determine if solar is a good solution for their building, they need to educate themselves. They need to discover the parameters of what's involved in putting solar on a house and the first measure of that would be how efficient is your current building. If you don't have efficiency as part of your planning, you may be missing the boat. And I'll give you a good example. Appliances - if your appliance in your home was manufactured in the last century, it's not efficient. There is much more efficient appliances which lowers your demand which makes the amount of solar you would want in your house less and more affordable. So one needs to educate themselves first and foremost. They need to understand efficiency options and perhaps have an energy audit by a professional who comes in and determines the integrity of the windows and how much insulation and whether there is infiltration.

FLATOW: But before that, you could find out - aren't there lots of states that give tax incentives to things like that even before you do that?

Mr. COLLINS: Exactly, exactly. Before you do that, one of the best sources that can be accessed through the American Solar Energy website,, is a site called FindSolar that lists all of the incentives throughout the country including New Jersey. It lists the utility rates and allows consumers to play scenarios, whether they want to have solar electricity on their house, whether they'd like to have solar hot water, they'd like to heat a poor or a spa. Those scenarios are available and designed for the consumer to look at and make some judgments. So all of the incentives, whether those incentives are at the state level, the federal level or by local utilities are rolled into that and described in that calculator.

FLATOW: So you go to and you can put in your state and see what kinds of cash is available.

Mr. COLLINS: Exactly, exactly. And it changes.

FLATOW: And it's different by every state.

Mr. COLLINS: It changes by every state, and it sometimes changes during the year in particular states.

FLATOW: What if you want to become a solar panel installer, Rhone. Is there a place a person can go to learn how to do that because I think that's an upcoming business?

Mr. RESCH: It is absolutely is Ira and when you look at the number of people who have lost their jobs from the housing industry as - you know, with all the housing downturn, you're talking about electricians, and plumbers, and carpenters, you know, real tradesmen who are looking for their next business opportunity, and they can go back to work in the solar-energy industry, and there are training opportunities at local community colleges at a number of different unions, and as well EB - the IBEW has set up training programs throughout the country, as well as through organizations like NABSEP and others...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: In North American Board of Certified Electric Practitioners, where they can go out and learn and become certified for installing solar, both thermal, as well as photovoltaics.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Let's go to the phones. Tim in Cleveland. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

TIM (Caller, Cleveland): Hello. I'm concerned about the range, I mean, on plugging electric. What's the rub on putting solar on the automobile that sits out all day long?

FLATOW: Can you put solar panels on cars? Did I not hear that the Prius next year is going to have solar panels on it, at least for some of its electricity?

Mr. RESCH: That's right. It will. And it will extend the range by up to 15 percent, so you're starting to see the automotive industry and certainly kind of after-purchase installations of solar on cars to give them greater range.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. 1-800-989-8255. How much better are solar panels now, Brad, than they used to be? Are they more efficient, I mean, are they easy enough to install in your own home?

Mr. COLLINS: They're easy to install. Their racking systems have come a long way. There's a whole variety of solar panels, not only the flat plate, there's some thin film, there's some that are flexible, there's that are used on steel rips, some that are integrated to look like and - shingles, but they produce electricity.

In terms of the efficiency, there's been marginal increases in efficiency over the last numbers of years. A percent here, a percent there of improvements in overall efficiency of the panels, and I think we will see changes coming down the pike that will increase the efficiency in the non-panel part of the system.

The inverters and the - what's called the balance of the system, I think, we'll see efficiencies in the those areas over the course of the next several years.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And I'll ask all of you. What kind of payback period do this solar require, do you think?

Mr. RESCH: Ira, it really depends on what state you live in, basically how much solar resources you have, and what your cost of electricity or your cost of oil is...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: And certainly, when you look in New England, I bet you you'll find for your own house that solar's a pretty good investment, and I found that here in DC as well.

Similar to what Rad - Brad said, I went online, I figured out what my incentives were. I applied for the grants, and when I invested in solar two years ago, I found that I could have a positive cash flow, and this is the right way to think about it.

When I built it into my mortgage, my mortgage went up by about 67 dollars per month, but my electricity bill came down by a hundred dollars a month, so I have a positive cash flow from day one of 33 dollars a month. Now, what's happened since I've had solar installed on my roof, are electricity prices in DC have gone up by 30 percent.

So what was a good investment then, is a great investment today.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: In fact, you know, over the last two years, my solar system has outperformed my 401k substantially, so it's been a great investment for us for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's an interesting way of looking at it. We're talking about solar energy this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. We're talking with Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, Fred Morse, senior adviser of U.S. operations at Abengoa Solar, and also, we've got on the phone, Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society. Let's go to the phones, to Michael in Gainesville. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller, Gainesville): Hey, Ira. Great show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

MICHAEL: I went to school on the GI Bill almost 30 years ago, and took a solar energy course, and I'm fin - I'm glad they're finally getting the ball rolling. I don't know whether it was your show, or Fresh Air or Diana Rein, but I heard that they could build a 92-square-mile - 92 miles on a side in - with solar panels - I don't know whether it was thermal or photovoltaic - in Nevada, and supply all the electricity in - that every household in America would need.

FLATOW: That was this show.

MICHAEL: Ah, yeah. I couldn't remember, but I thought.

FLATOW: Hard to believe, isn't it?

MICHAEL: Why don't we do that?


Dr. MORSE: Well, it can. We have the resource. We have the land. We don't have the political will, and we don't have the transmission, and I think that the example of how much you can produc, a certain amount of area can power the whole country, that's good to point out how large the resource is.

But what's needed is to take the first steps, and the first steps are to start to build one square mile, ten square miles, and to get the transmission lines put in. The Western Governors Association, the Bureau of Land Management are all looking at setting up solar zones in the West, and then building the transmission so that that power can get to the growing load centers.

So, it's another example that it can be done, it's a very-profoundly-large resource, but we really need a policy framework, and we need the political will to make it happen.

Dr. MORSE: And just to...

FLATOW: Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL: All right. Thank you.

Dr. MORSE: And to kind of put it into text, Ira, the acreage that Michael was just describing is a small fraction of what's currently already leased to the oil-and-gas industry. So if we were to give the same kinds of resources to the solar industry, that we currently give to the oil-and-natural gas industry, we would be able to provide well over a hundred percent of all our power needs in the United States.

FLATOW: And you're saying that with the current technology that we have, we could do that.

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely. This technology is off the shelf, and it is - it works extremely well, and - remember, this is designed and engineered in a lot of cases, for space applications, for photovoltaics, or for extreme weather conditions in the desert...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. MORSE: For solar thermal. This technology is rock solid, and really just needs to be scaled up and applied in every available location in order to achieve that resource.

FLATOW: And you wouldn't need to have to concentrate at all in Nevada for example. There's enough solar around the rest of the country. You could divide it up. That's just - that was just a description of the amount of area you would need, right?

Dr. MORSE: That's exactly right. I mean, again, look at the United States as a solar resource from, you know, across the Northeast, across the Midwest, and even in the Pacific Northwest, the United States still has substantially-better solar resources than they do in Germany.

Cleveland, Ohio, for example has 50 percent more sunlight than they get on average in Berlin, yet Berlin is installing substantially more amounts of solar than we are. So solar will work spectacularly in all 50 states here in the United States.

Mr. RESCH: I would also like to add it will work at night.


DR. MORSE: Yes. It will.

FLATOW: You know something I don't?

Mr. RESCH: Well, with these large solar thermal-power plants, it is possible to make the solar-collection area a little larger, put some of that thermal energy into the equivalent of a thermos bottle, so when the sun goes down, but it's still 100 degrees in Phoenix, at 8 or 9 o'clock at night, that plant will still operate.

It is - and with that thermal storage, over time, you could start to see solar energy moving from intermediate load towards base load, and if there was a carbon policy that made the economics attractive, it would be possible to extend the time longer and longer.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, come back and talk a lots more about solar energy. We'll take your calls, 1-800-989-8255, or in Second Line. Hang in there. We'll get to you. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

(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 power with my guests Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society, publisher of the magazine, Solar Today. Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Fred Morse, senior adviser, U.S. operations for Abengoa Solar. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Charlie in Wichita. Hi, Charlie.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi, Ira. When you and I were kids a long time ago, I found a book on a shelf, you weren't down the street or anything, but anyway, it was copyright 1905 called the "Century Book of Facts," and I remember two articles out of this maga - out of this book. One of them was about Palomino Horses and the other was about small footprint parabolic mirror solar furnaces.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

CHARLIE: And I wondered if your guests could comment on - I mean, hear they were in the works over a century ago, has there been any possibility they're going to be put to use, I mean, you're talking about all this acreage for photovoltaic, but these things were said to generate up to 2500 degrees in a very small area...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

CHARLIE: To generate steam to turn turbines.

FLATOW: Well, Fred. That's basically what you're working on, right?

Dr. MORSE: Yes. Exactly. And in fact, it was Mr. Schumann in 1915, built a parabolic-trough power plant in Egypt, if I recall correctly, and if you look at his design, and you look at the troughs that Abengoa Solar will put into the Solano plant, they look like a modern version, a parabola is a parabola.


FLATOW: Describe what you're talking about.

Dr. MORSE: Well, what was done in 1915, and what we're doing now is if you have a reflecting surface shaped like a parabola, then all of the light that enters it, will get focused on a line that runs down the center, and as long as you're perpendicular to the sun, all of the energy from the sun on that entire space will get focused on a much - on a very small line, we put a pipe down that line with a working fluid.

That principle was proven almost a hundred years ago, and what we're doing now is simply modernizing it, putting in better reflecting surfaces, putting in a pipe that's very much like a Roach Motel, the sunlight gets in and it cannot get out, and we get to very high temperatures, but the principles are the same and I would recommend people read "The Golden Thread."

It's a wonderful story of the history of solar energy.

FLATOW: All right, thanks, Charlie.

Mr. COLLINS: Oh yeah, thank you. That's wonderful.

FLATOW: You're welcome.


FLATOW: Bye. I keep reminding people that the fuel cell was invented in 1839. So, just because these things are invented, then they get put on shelves or some place, and not discover it till later, till they're ready to be used. And so you basically - Fred, you have this parabolic reflecting mirror that sits in a trough...

Dr. MORSE: Mm-hm.

FLATOW: And there's this pipe that runs down, it could be a hundred yards long or 50, something like that?

Dr. MORSE: These are generally a football field...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. MORSE: Along, I mean, each assembly. If you want to imagine the tube, it's like a four-inch thick glass tube with a black pipe inside of it, vacuum-sealed so that it could achieve 700 and 750 degrees Fahrenheit...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. MORSE: And that's hot enough to make steam. So you just collect all that fluid, three square miles of it...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MORSE: In the case of Solano, and you've got steam and you've got electricity.

FLATOW: Let's talk about a bit about - people like to wait for their price of things good to go down. You know, they look at the latest camera, or TV set, or electronic device, or their computers, all right? Then they'd say, should I buy now or should we just wait six months from now? It's going to really drop in price. Should people wait? You know, a couple of years for solar, for that to go down, Brad?

Mr. COLLINS: I think that the comment about Rhone's experience was very much on target. The cost of fossil fuel to generate electricity is going up all across the country, and if you want to wait, you're going to be spending a lot money while you wait, and I don't see on the horizon great reductions in the cost of solar installations, photovoltaic installations for homes, particularly in light of the fact that there' still is a somewhat worldwide shortage of polysilicon.

FLATOW: Question from Second Life, Sig Jangki(ph) says any progress on solar sidings such as in skyscrapers? I did see an article from MIT this week, a news release that said that they have invented a way of taking the light that falls on, you know, glass on a building, and shuffling it to the side, and amplifying it to side where there might be some photovoltaic cells in collecting, and making them much more efficient that way.

Mr. RESCH: That's certainly one technique, Ira.


Mr. RESCH: But what you're seeing really around the world is photovoltaic manufacturers build what's called Building Integrated Photovoltaics or BIPV. And this literally becomes a panel that is the skin of the building. It may be a wall, it may actually be windows that are still transparent...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: Yet still can generate electricity, it may be a new roofing surface, so the entire roof is, you know, is a solar-generating system. These technologies continue to be developed, and I think what you're really seeing is more designers, more architects incorporate solar into their designs as their building LEED-certified buildings, or they're building, you know, newer, greener types of buildings throughout the U.S. and around the world.

FLATOW: Tim in Clinton, Wisconsin. Hi, Tim.

TIM (Caller): Hello. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. My question is, has anybody done an environmental impact study on the desert? I mean, these solar panels are going to take up a lot of surface area and create a lot shade, aren't they?

Dr. MORSE: Yes. Certainly, a plan cannot be sited without doing a very thorough environmental-impact study. And so, that's required. Most of the developers are very careful to avoid wildlife corridors, to avoid any area where there are endangered species. Some will use previously disturbed lands such as farmland.

It is a very serious aspect of siting and permitting, and I can just assure you that these plans are carefully sited, and I should also say that most developers don't want to be in the pristine desert.

They like a site near a road, we've got to move a lot of equipment in, we've got to have workers there, they have to live somewhere. So, there's a lot of thought that goes into siting... FLATOW: Thanks, Tim.

Mr. MORSE: From an environmental point of view.

TIM: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Do you consider yourself, Fred, as a competitor to the photovoltaic people? You're in the solar, thermal, and the heat part.

Dr. MORSE: Not at all. Not at all. As Rhone said, this country needs everything it can get to move into clean energy. I see a future where photovoltaics is just part of the building, without giving it another thought, part of the skin of the building. I see a future where solar energy is used for central station power as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. MORSE: We need both.

FLATOW: But you don't see much of a future in the immediate future, if we don't get those tax credits.

Dr. MORSE: Absolutely. It's been rather stunning to see the impasse and the months go by, waiting for this feel to leveled, as Rhone says

Mr. RESCH: Well, Ira, one thing I think that your listeners can do, is play a role in helping encourage Congress to take action, and they can go online right now to our website, which is And take action and contact their Congressman and specifically, there's senators, because right now, it's the Senate that's holding up these tax credits from going forward, and tell them, hey, this is a priority for me.

I'm a constituent and I am going to vote on this issue in the fall.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: Another way to reach him is the congressional switch board at 202-224-3121, and ask them to support HR6049.

FLATOW: We have two senators running for president. Do they have a record on having voted or not voted for that?

Mr. RESCH: They do. You know, it's difficult to vote consistently when you're on the road a lot. But if you were to look strictly at their voting records, and if you vote yes, they count as a yes-vote. If you don't vote, they count as a no vote in the Senate. Senator McCain has not voted once.

So basically cast a no vote seven times on these votes in the Senate. Senator Obama has been in town for five of the votes, and he's voted yes five of the time, and so, subsequently the two other times he wasn't here, that would be considered a no vote as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. So these are definitely things that can be asked of the senators. Whether they have changed their positions or whether - how they feel about the future of solar energy in general, and helping it along.

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely. Both should be called out and say - you know, they should have very specific plans about how they're going to be advancing solar energy and renewable energy in this country, to make sure that we have a stable-price environment for consumers...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. RESCH: That we're investing in reducing our carbon emissions, and that we're creating green-collar jobs here in the U.S.

FLATOW: And considering there are a lot of other senators. The senators themselves are up for eletion - re-election this year.

Mr. RESCH: Absolutely. And you look across the board, there are senators who have cast no votes on this consistently, who represent dozens of solar companies in their own state, and it's just unimaginable how they can be voting against their constituents, voting against creating new solar-manufacturing facilities in their state.

They need to recognize that this is an important voter issue, it's an important issue for the country, and to reverse their votes.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Well, I want to thank you, gentlemen, all for taking time to be with us. I hope that Fred, Rhone, and Brad, that you're positive about getting a vote in this year? Do you think there will be a vote taken?

Mr. RESCH: I do. I think there will be another vote coming up probably as soon as next week or the week after in the Senate, and I think by September, there will be a bi-partisan solution. We're really holding out hope that the Republicans and Democrats could find a way to work this out.

FLATOW: And Brad, if people want to start in, you know, putting solar in their own homes and learning more about it, where should they go to learn more about it?

Mr. COLLINS: I would send them to That's the good resource, has all the information in an extraordinarily robust set of frequently asked questions and information to help educate the consumer.

FLATOW: And the Solar Today obviously follows the industry, and follows the latest happenings in the solar industry.

Mr. COLLINS: It does, and in the September-October issue, we'll list the nine questions you should ask everybody running for office.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right? What's the top two questions? Have you got the top two you could give us?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, the top two questions, where do they stand in investment-tax-credit-production-tax credit? And what do they want to do about reducing carbon in our atmosphere?

FLATOW: And then you got the other seven on your magazine.

Mr. COLLINS: That's right.

FLATOW: All right, thank you very much for being with us, Brad.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you.

FLATOW: And also Rhone Resch, he was president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Fred Morse, senior adviser, U.S. operations for Abengoa Solar. Gentleman, have a good weekend and thanks for taking time to be with us.

Mr. RESCH: Thank you and go solar, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MORSE: Thank you. Bye.

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

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