If solar has gotten so cheap, why isn’t there more of it?

March 3, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Why don’t more homes have this sign? Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr.

Some people who worry about peak oil like to point out that renewable energy won’t save us. That is, given the amount of fossil fuels that the world uses today, it would take an unrealistically large increase in the amount of renewables available now to make up the difference as oil, natural gas and coal start to deplete.

So we might as well resign ourselves now to a future of shivering in the dark.

Those same peak oil doomers share what they seem to think is news to the rest of us — namely, that solar panels require oil. Petroleum-based plastics and chemicals go into solar panel components. And of course energy, mostly fossil fuels, is required to make, ship and even install solar panels.

This is somehow supposed to mean that solar power is bogus and that photovoltaics are, in essence, merely a feel-good offshoot of fossil fuels.

“Solar panels are just a way to store oil,” a well known peak oiler once told me. “And if you’re going to store oil, I’d rather just keep a tanker ship filled with crude anchored off the coast.”

Too cheap to meter?

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Graphic: Solar Energy Industries Association.

Clever quips from doomers aside, the peak-ocalypse hasn’t come yet. Of course, doomers would remind us that who’s to say an oil shock and economic collapse won’t come next week?

Yet, somehow, worrying about the futility of avoiding peak oil doom hasn’t stopped solar companies from installing new solar at a breakneck pace. Today in America, a new solar array goes up once every three minutes, according to Bloomberg News. By next year, it could be one every minute.

And while solar may still provide a puny percentage of today’s power generation (in 2014 it was still less than one percent), solar panels are getting cheaper so quickly that, barring a doomerish collapse of the global economy, we can expect solar to just keep going down in cost. At some point, lower cost will help solar start to meet a serious amount of the world’s power demand.

During the last five years, says Bloomberg, the cost for solar panels has dropped more than 65% in the last five years, to 70 cents a watt today. Fully installed costs are higher, but they’ve been dropping too.

What’s stopping solar

The main challenge to solar growth may surprise you. It’s not peak oil, of course. It’s not even cheap oil, which has depressed solar company stocks but has done nothing to effect the fundamentals of the solar market — cheaper panels and rising demand.

And while nasty politics may slow solar down in some states, the main barrier to solar growth is not the Koch Brothers lobbying to kill clean energy subsidies through a propaganda campaign whose most outrageous claim must be that solar hurts the poor — which, by the way, it totally doesn’t.

The real problem is not even big electric utilities who continue to drag their feet on installing the big solar arrays it would take to replace their aging coal and nuclear plants.

Because unlike a coal or nuclear plant, a solar plant doesn’t have to be huge and centralized. A 400 megawatt solar farm operated by an electric utility in the Mohave Desert is no more efficient per panel than a 2 kilowatt system on the roof of a bungalow in Las Vegas. Indeed, because solar can fit in lots of small spaces all over the place, you don’t even need a plant at all. That means you don’t have to wait for utilities to get on board. This is the beauty of distributed energy — you can just go around the electric company and become your own DIY utility by putting panels on your roof.

The real barrier to solar’s growth in America today is far less sinister than entrenched energy monopolies, political opponents or cheap fossil fuels: it turns out to be a simple lack of financing.

Solar may cheaper than it was a couple years ago — in some cases, half as much — but putting an array on your home or business roof is still a big-ticket purchase. For most of us, it’s too big to pay for in cash upfront and even too big to put on your credit card.

Show me the easy payment terms

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Solar will spread once homeowners and businesses can get financing. Photo: Portland General Electric/Flickr.

The American consumer economy was built on credit.

Imagine, for example, if you had to pay full price to buy a new car?

Few drivers can afford to hand over a check for $25,000 to a Toyota salesman in order to drive off in a 2015 Camry. But three-to-five year financing at a low interest rate available right at the dealership makes the car affordable. As with cars, so with major purchases for the home: buyers don’t need to pull out a wad of bills to take delivery on a new sofa or refrigerator but can instead take advantage of low- or no-interest monthly payments over six or twelve months.

Today, solar is just starting to get the same kind of easy payment terms.

In the past, if you wanted a solar array on your home rooftop, you pretty much had to hand over that $25,000 in cash that you didn’t need to pay for the dealer-financed Camry. Or, you could go through the effort of applying at your bank for a home equity loan. Even if you qualified, filling out the paperwork for a bank loan was a much bigger hassle than signing up for 90-days-same-as-cash to get a new Whirlpool dishwasher at Lowe’s with same-day delivery.

Now, residential solar installers have begun to offer their own financing on attractive three- or five-year terms with no money down. In some U.S. states, homeowners can even get solar installed on their roof for free by a company which retains ownership of the equipment and sells the power to the homeowner every month, usually for less than what they’d pay to their local electric utility.

Financing is also coming for commercial-scale solar, putting 200 kilowatts or more on rooftops of warehouses, apartment complexes or local government buildings.

Once solar companies can work with lenders to offer better financing, solar is sure to spread much more quickly. At least, that is, until the complete collapse of industrial civilization.

In the meantime, let’s hope the rest of us can get no-money-down photovoltaic or solar thermal systems installed on our rooftops sooner rather than later. Even if renewables will make up for only a small fraction of all the fossil fuels we’ll eventually lose, when the next energy crisis hits, people who have solar will be much happier than those don’t.

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: peak oil, Renewable Energy, solar power