The clean-energy folks worry that solar is doomed as a result of Donald Trump's election. But maybe not. It's unlikely Trump, a pragmatic businessman, would oppose a technology that could compete in the free market, particularly if there's consumer demand.
There are really two solar markets -- rooftop for individuals and businesses and solar farms for grid-based electricity. Advances, significant ones, are being made on both fronts.
One of the most important, at least for Florida, was the resounding defeat of Amendment 1, an attempt by the utilities to stifle competition. The defeat opens the way for third-party sales of solar, a big step toward open competition with other energy sources.
Lots of things are happening out west. One of the biggest is a plan to build the world's largest solar farm in the Nevada desert. California-based SolarResearch is proposing a $5 billion installation that would generate 2 gigawatts of power using thousands of mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a tower filled with molten salts, in turn creating steam to power turbines.
Less spectacular, but nonetheless impressive, is Texas's move to embrace solar. That's right, Texas! Deregulation broke the stranglehold of state utilities, resulting in a huge free-market surge, the most recent being installation of 450 megawatts of solar power near San Antonio. The Lone Star State is on target to generate 16% of its electricity from renewables this year.
Then there's Tesla's plan, a real headline grabber, to sell solar shingles for roofs. Addressing the ugly look of conventional panels, Tesla is offering solar cells embedded in glass with a color louver film. From the ground they're opaque and look like ordinary roofing. The downside is they're costly because of low energy conversion. They may or may not catch on.
More certain is the big bet in renewables by ten of the world's largest oil companies. Shell, BP, Saudi Arabian Oil and others have pledged to spend $100 million each over the next ten years on low-carbon technology. Total SA, one of the ten, already owns a solar company.
What about technical advances? Here are just a few.
- Dye-sensitized solar cells have opened the way for "smart" windows, which let light into rooms,
while at the same time generating electricity.
- Multi-layer hybrid cells have shown promise for using both light and heat from the sun for
- Cells containing perovskite minerals continue to improve in conversion efficiency, now over 20%,
pointing the way to significantly lower costs for solar panels.
There's even more action in battery research, important for developing affordable units for storing energy when the sun isn't shining.
- Great improvements have been made in chemical flow systems, low-cost alternatives to
conventional lithium batteries.
- Air-breathing batteries with novel lithium electrodes and catalytic membranes may be a breakthrough for greatly increasing storage capacity.
- Novel electrolytes now under development may allow solid-state batteries to operate at very high and very low temperatures.
All of this is promising, but the hurdles remain high. Shale gas is cheap, and fracking has slowed little. Large quantities are still being produced for grid-based power. (Florida's utilities are betting heavily on natural gas.) As yet, solar can't compete in most states without subsidies.
While it's true that rooftop solar is a winner for businesses -- manufacturing sites, warehouses, large retail operations -- it's less so for homes where resale is often hampered by the conspicuous panels. And vast solar farms have come under fire for "visual pollution." Many feel they're a blight on the landscape.
Then there's the political side. While I doubt the 30% subsidy for solar and wind will be rescinded, the environmental justification will almost certainly go away. In the Trump administration, climate change will not be front and center.
The key is to win the battle in the marketplace, to achieve cost parity with hydrocarbons without subsidies. And it's doable. Technical advances are on a high trajectory and costs are dropping. It's not a matter of whether, but of when. It will eventually happen. Never bet against American ingenuity.