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The rise of solar: why the sun is shining on main street

Paul Heinrichs, The Age
..Under the impact of what one industry figure calls an environmental “perfect storm” — a unique convergence of influential factors — solar energy is shifting rapidly from the fringe to the mainstream of Australian life.

As well as solar water heaters, there is suddenly a big market developing among wealthier people — environmentally conscious doctors, lawyers and retirees — for the expensive photovoltaic (PV) solar power systems. ..

Across Australia, the most significant move is the shift to solar hot-water heating, a move the environmentalist David Suzuki calls the best single step a household could make to reduce greenhouse gases.

Electric water heaters account for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions of the total energy consumed in a typical home. Solar water heaters can reduce those emissions by 85 to 90 per cent.

Solar water heater sales in Australia have doubled since 2000-2001, and were estimated to be 42,700 units in 2004-5, up from 36,000 units sold in each of the previous two years. ..

The Bracks Government is also promising a significant new incentive for PV system buyers if it is re-elected on November 25. ..
(11 Nov 2006)
Contributor SP writes: The focus on grid connected systems may in the short term turn out to be a self limiting step if the goal is mass roll out of solar PV. There are only so many rich Doctor and Lawyer types that can afford these systems even with the subsidies.
Solar PV for lighting only is a “solution” that could achieve mass implementation that does not require inverters and other expensive plant, and should not be troubled by regulatory struggles with power companies. In the process, the market for PV would expand, hopefully driving prices down in the process.

Sharp expands solar cell output by factor of six

Simon Burns, CRN
Sharp will soon expand its solar cell output by a factor of six, said the Japanese electronics manufacturer. The company claims that the move will make it the world’s largest manufacturer of solar power generation products. New production lines will start rolling at the company’s solar cell facility in Southern Japan later this month. ..

Solar cells currently offer such attractive profit margins that manufacturers of other electronic components are paying tens of millions of dollars to refit production lines to make solar cells.

In spite of the wide variation in cell size and function, there are substantial similarities between many of the basic manufacturing techniques used to make silicon-based solar cells and those used to make other semiconductor products where multiple identical components are laid out in an array.

For example, cut throat pricing and intense competition in the LCD panel market have pushed some second-tier LCD makers to attempt a switch to solar panel production. ..
(3 Nov 2006)

Sand Trap

Alan Joch, Plenty Magazine
High oil prices, growing interest in alternative energy, and decades of R&D all mean boom times for the solar industry, right? Not quite. Just when solar-panel sales should be skyrocketing, the industry finds itself grappling with a nagging shortage of polysilicon, the key ingredient in photovoltaic solar cells. Tight supplies are frustrating panel makers and causing investors to balk at backing public companies.

“Right now, I’d say we are in a correction phase for solar stocks,” says J. Peter Lynch, a private investment banker focused on renewable energy for alternative energy companies. “Wall Street said, ‘Jeez, these solar stocks have really run up,’ but then the light suddenly went on about the polysilicon shortage, and the stocks corrected by about 20 to 25 percent. The logic behind it is, ‘Whoops, we went too far.’” ..

Last year, though, convinced that long-term polysilicon orders were for real, companies like U.S.-based Hemlock Semiconductor, Norway’s Renewable Energy Corporation, and Germany’s Wacker-Chemie each committed hundreds of millions of dollars for new capacity. But with a lag time of about three to five years between commitment and production, the new polysilicon plants won’t impact the solar industry until 2008 and beyond.

So for now, shortages are still putting the breaks on solar-industry growth and pitting the solar sector in a fight against the massive semiconductor industry, which now uses more than half of the 30,000 metric tons of polysilicon produced each year to make everything from PCs to cell phones to gaming systems. Nevertheless, the solar industry is poised to hit a significant milestone soon: sometime in the next two years, more raw silicon will be going to solar panels than to electronics chips. ..[emphasis added- LJ] (10 Nov 2006)

Energy Payback from Photovoltaics: Problems in Calculation

Jeff Vail, Theory of Power
Does solar energy-specifically photovoltaic (PV) panels-ever produce as much energy as the energy that was initially invested in their manufacture? Industry, academia, and government all seem to be in agreement that the answer is “yes.” (1)(2)(3) The consensus seems to be that PV produces as much energy as was used in its creation in a time period of 1-5 years, allowing PV to produce between 6 and 30 times more energy over its life than was used in its creation.

These two answers-that PV produces more energy than is used in manufacture, and that PV provides an Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of between 6:1 (2) and 30:1 (2)-suggest that photovoltaics can be and should be a cornerstone of our efforts to replace our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels.

There are serious problems, however, with the methodology used at present to calculate the EROEI of solar panels. Some authors claim that life-span EROEI for photovoltaics is as high as 50, but provide no information for how that figure is calculated. (4) Others, such as Clarion University’s calculations, take a very limited view of energy invested in PV production, accounting only for energy use of the manufacturing plant itself. Under these assumptions, they understandably arrive at a very optimistic EROEI of 6:1 to 31:1. (1)

So what energy inputs are not being accounted for in such a calculation? Let’s work backwards:
(3 Nov 2006)
The EROEI issue is complicated and contentious. Energy Bulletin published another article on the subject:
Energy Payback of Roof Mounted Photovoltaic Cells

Investment in Photovoltaic Complexity

Jeff Vail, A Theory of Power
As my last two posts illustrate, I’m in a bit of a rut on the potential for photovoltaics to solve all of our problems. It would be overly simplistic to boil this argument down to “Roddenberrys” vs. “Doomers,” because those terms (the former of which I just coined, so bear with me) seem to only address irrational behavior by individuals at either extreme end of the techno-optimism spectrum. There is a very genuine debate underway in what I consider the more moderate middle of this spectrum. Two people whom I enjoy reading, and who’s writing I respect, are on either side of my personal view of this, but both within the “reasonable” zone: Big Gav from Peak Energy (leaning towards Roddenberry), and Ted Heistman from Freerange Organic Human (leaning towards Doomer).

At the end of the day, the information available suggests to me that the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) for photovoltaics is less than or about equal to 1:1. If I’m wrong, and it is more like 10:1 and will steadily rise indefinitely with futher research, then a strong case for “Star Trek” optimism (and hence “Roddenberrys”) can be made. There is no doubt in my mind that improvements in photovoltaics will be made–the real question is whether the return on these investments in technology (in complexity) will provide linear returns, or whether they will be subject to diminishing marginal returns.
(10 Nov 2006)