Solar Power: Bright Future For Renewable Energy Source, But Development Is Uneven

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The massive wildfires that have inflamed parts of California have made it difficult for solar panels in the state to absorb enough sunlight, thereby reducing their energy production in recent days.

But Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, asserted the solar industry has still performed well during the inferno.

“Even with the orange skies overhead, solar panels were producing 80%, or more, of the electricity that we rely on them to produce,” Del Chiaro told KQED.

While the California wildfires present a temporary setback to solar power in the state, solar energy has made great strides across the world in recent years. A greater commitment by global governments and industries to battle climate change has brought renewable forms of energy to the fore, but solar power still faces a number of challenges.

Wyldon King Fishman, vice chair of the American Solar Energy Society, explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global solar industry.

“Disruptions to global shipping and air cargo caused shortages of parts at first,” Fishman told International Business Times. “Tariffs were already causing havoc between solar installers in the U.S. and China. [While] some nations included solar installers with utility workers as ‘essential,’ the U.S. did not.”

Abishur Prakash is a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, a strategy consulting firm based in Toronto. He told IBT that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a mixed impact upon the global solar energy industry.

“On one end, such as solar power installations, there has been a pullback,” he said. “In the U.S. and Europe, solar installations have dropped 30%.”

But, on other fronts, solar power is accelerating, Prakash noted.

“There’s a lot of innovation taking place,” he noted. “For example, in the U.K., new [semiconductor]chips have been developed that could rewire how solar power is embedded in societies, from solar windows to solar buildings.”

Second, geopolitics is coming into the mix.

“In Myanmar, bidding for the construction of solar power plants saw Chinese firms get ‘favorable conditions’ compared to firms from the U.S. and U.K.,” he said. “In Australia, new robot boats are being developed, powered by renewable energies like solar, to identify and monitor asylum seekers.”

Europe is seen as being in the vanguard of solar power.

Fishman indicated that the EU is experiencing a “dramatic drop” in energy usage, which is negatively impacting coal-fired power plants and steel producers.

“The solar industry became well developed in Germany 30 years ago,” she said. “Neighboring countries took notice including the U.K.”

Prakash commented that it’s difficult to compare Europe’s solar energy program with the rest of the world because of how Europe is governed – i.e., dozens of nations following rules and laws from a regional government.

Still, he indicated that the EU has been taking a holistic approach to making solar and other renewable energies the new, dominant energy source in Europe.

“National governments in France, Germany, Norway and Netherlands are pushing for bans on fossil fuel-powered vehicles in the coming years,” he stated. “This will create space for solar-powered vehicles – and connected infrastructure, like solar highways.”

However, in other areas, Europe still lags.

“For example, the countries investing in clean energy the most are: China, U.S., Japan, India and Brazil,” Prakash pointed out. “No European country [even]makes the top five.”

India and China have been widely criticized for placing their economic advancement ahead of environmental matters.

Bur Prakash countered that when it comes to solar power, India and China are giants and are leading the world.

“On the cost front, India has the world’s cheapest solar power,” he pointed out. “And, in China, solar power has become cheaper than grid-based electricity in many Chinese cities. In fact, China has the world’s largest solar industry.”

By 2024, China’s deployment of solar panels will far exceed that of the U.S. and will be triple that of India.

“However, India’s deployment is taking place in very innovative ways,” Prakash said. “India was the first country to launch ‘floating’ solar power plants. And, of the top five solar parks currently being built, India accounts for three of them.”

Espen Moe, professor of political science at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, told IBT that India is finally realizing that renewable energy is a necessity.

“Air quality in Delhi and other Indian cities is so poor that it is becoming a political problem,” he added.

The U.S. has a decided mixed record on solar energy.

In 2019, 2% of U.S. electricity came from solar power – but the U.S. government projects that by 2050, renewable energies, including solar power, will replace natural gas as the top source of electricity in the country.

Moe noted that 2020 was expected to be a new record year for solar.

“But in the U.S. 53% of all solar workers have been either laid off or furloughed or are on reduced work and pay,” he said. “So, solar has been hit hard. According to the [Solar Energy Industries Association], the U.S. solar sector will have lost 114,000 jobs because of COVID. … The industry has suffered harder than the rest of the economy.”

The biggest advantage the U.S. has, Prakash asserted, is that it’s the most innovative nation in the world.

“This is giving rise to new advances,” he said. “For example, Tesla (TSLA) created solar panels fitted into roof shingles. Massive advances are also taking place. At [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], researchers have developed 3D solar towers that can boost output by up to 15%. Meanwhile, in Nevada, a project is underway to use solar power to heat molten salt and use it as a new energy source.”

California, he added, has passed laws that requires new homes built in 2020 and onwards to have solar panels.

“In the coming years, the interest in solar power in the U.S. will grow, not subside,” Prakash predicts. “That’s because the opportunity cost is massive. One calculation proposes that it will take just over 21,000 square miles of solar panels, 0.5% of the total U.S. landmass, to power the entire country.”

Moe noted that California is well advanced in solar energy, where costs have gone down by 90% in the past decade.

“After China, the U.S. has the second largest solar power capacity in the world,” he said. “So, in that sense, the U.S. solar sector is doing well. [But] the U.S. has no major solar energy manufacturers, so in that sense, the U.S. cannot compete with China.”

Traditionally, solar power has been expensive. But, costs have been dropping significantly.

“Since 2010, solar power costs have dropped by 82%,” Prakash noted. “This drop in cost can be seen in all areas of the solar industry, from solar panels to solar inverters.”

But, the key challenge that needs to be overcome is the cost of installing solar panels, he cautioned. “And, here, costs are still high,” he said. “For instance, the law in California mandating solar panels in new houses could result in $10,000 more in costs. When it comes to solar costs, one has to look at things as a timeline. Before, costs were extremely high. Today, costs are significantly lower. And, in the coming years, solar power may be extremely cheap.”

Solar power still faces a number of challenges.

The first is that it poses serious competition to the big energy companies that have invested billions in building their infrastructure, supply lines, and partnerships that power the world. Now, with the emergence of solar power, this is all at risk.

“Second, there is the cost – and justification – of embedding solar power into the existing energy systems of nations,” Prakash said. “Third is the question of sustainability and how much of a priority it is for certain industries.”

Moe noted that, globally, overall installation figures will be significantly down from last year.

“For solar this is particularly relevant for rooftop installations, whereas utility-scale installations are less affected,” he said. “Post-COVID stimulus plans may be necessary, and for governments that are committed to a renewable energy transition, COVID could [present]an opportunity to shift energy production away from coal and other types of fossil fuels.”

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