Solar Power to the Rescue – P. Spencer

The nice thing about imperialism is that it motivates others to defeat it. For now, most countries are still tip-toeing around the U.S.A. because of the nuclear arsenal and due to the destabilizing effect on international economic activity of cutting off the U.S. markets. In one particular, though, the rest of the industrialized world has an anti-imperialist strategy – even Great Britain is in on this one.

Exploitation of renewable energy is the main feature of this strategy – particularly solar-derived power. Ten years ago, largely as a function of government (NASA and military) contracts, the U.S. was the world’s leading producer of photovoltaic generation devices. Now there is no U.S. manufacturer in the top 10, although there are a lot of start-ups and GE is talking a good game. The U.S. ranks third in cumulative, installed capacity; but, if it were not for tax breaks and other incentives in California and New Jersey (of all places), this country would be in a relative holding pattern.

Japan is now number one in installed capacity and in manufacturing output. Germany is number two. Japan has more than three times the installed capacity of the U.S. and produced five times the solar cell capacity in 2005; Germany has double the U.S. numbers in both categories. Four of the top five manufacturers in terms of rated output are Japanese, five of the top 10 are European (including the solar division of British Petroleum).

Germany has rebates and incentives that cut the cost of modules roughly in half. Japan has energy (petroleum-based) prices at an unsubsidized level – the upshot is that their manufacturing output for “solar modules” is sold out for some time to come. Spain, I read recently, has promulgated policy to require new roofs to be constructed with photovoltaic capability. Shanghai has a similar “100,000 roofs” policy.

These are the numbers that are reported by “Western” interests. China, India and Russia all have extensive policy and capacity development projects designed to diminish reliance on hydrocarbon-based energy production. China in particular aims to become the world’s chief solar power producer and purveyor. The Chinese government instituted a policy at the first of this year that includes reducing the cost of solar modules by about 60 percent in the next six years. The Chinese intend to invest $180 billion (billion, not million) in photovoltaics over the next 14 years with a target of 80 percent (45 percent in terms of compound rate) growth in manufacturing and use per year over the next five years, as a starter. Chinese and Japanese technical papers seem now to dominate both the engineering and the scientific conferences, and Indian researchers are just getting warmed up.

One of the myths that the anti-solar (oil-supported, of course) contingent promotes is that the energy cost of solar cell production is more than the cell’s output during its operational lifetime. Research now shows between one and four years of energy payback, depending on the technology. As to cost per se, payback ranges from four to 10 years, depending on local rebates, tax credits, and other subsidies. When China succeeds in cost reduction (and the other big suppliers are forced to price compete), the payback will be two to four years – without applying the price increases that we know are coming in petroleum. The lifetime of most modules is generally rated at about 20 years, but experience with actual installations is showing that this is an underestimate. Do we get the picture?

And these are just the standard, silicon-based solar cells. Interestingly, there are a large number of new developments here in the U.S., too, despite virtually no federal support for research or development. Some of the new approaches are cosmetic to some degree, such as integration with roofing material, window glass, or coatings; but, when you consider that roofs, windows, and outside walls make up a lot of single-purpose surface area, why not expand their functionality?

Much of the improvement is driven by the goal of increasing conversion efficiency. Materials such as gallium arsenide tolerate higher temperatures, which permits the use of relatively cheap light-concentration methods and materials. Some others, such as nitrides of gallium, indium, and copper make use of a wider spectrum of sunlight than the standard silicon material.

Much of the R&D has been done in the U.S. over the last 30-plus years in support of the space program. All of a sudden, however, the rest of the world has apparently all realized at once how they can escape the giant thumb. I don’t know if they whispered this to one another at UN cocktail parties or how this movement arose. I’m guessing, however, that the Japanese figured it out first.

Meantime, the Russians re-federalized their oil and gas industry to finance their re-engagement with science and industry; and the Chinese put together an overall strategy to exploit the U.S. market to raise capital, make nice with the hydrocarbon suppliers for the short-term, and develop renewable energy resources for the long-term.

I know that it’s Pollyanna-ish, but I’m still optimistic. I think that imperialism is finally being seen for the anchor that it is in sectors that tried to play along in the past. And I think that a broad segment of the world is doing something about it. The petro-sector of the U.S. ruling class appears to have overplayed its hand with its hired-hand federal government. One outcome is that the world’s oil producers figured out in a hurry that they could sell to someone else besides U.S. energy companies – even if on credit – while the U.S. was pummelling the southwest Asian tar-baby.

One practically revolutionary strategy for fundamental political change (i.e., diminishing the influence of the petroleum industry) in this country is to push for rapid alternative energy development at every level. Almost nobody will disagree with the purpose of this movement. Before long it must be allied with public power to prevent the usual co-optation, but in the short run it’s radical in its own right.

Paul Spencer

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3 Responses to Solar Power to the Rescue – P. Spencer

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    I have read through one history
    Each of you has your personal story; it is your history. Keeping a diary or writing your feelings in a special notebook is a wonderful way to learn how to think and write about who you are — to develop your own identity and voice.

    People of all ages are able to do this. Your own history is special because of your circumstances: your cultural, racial, religious or ethnic background. Your story is also part of human history, a part of the story of the dignity and worth of all human beings. By putting opinions and thoughts into words, you, too, can give voice to your inner self and strivings.

    A long entry by Anne Frank on April 5, 1944, written after more than a year and a half of hiding from the Nazis, describes the range of emotions 14-year-old Anne is experiencing:

    “. . . but the moment I was alone I knew I was going to cry my eyes out. I slid to the floor in my nightgown and began by saying my prayers, very fervently. Then I drew my knees to my chest, lay my head on my arms and cried, all huddled up on the bare floor. A loud sob brought me back down to earth, and I choked back my tears, since I didn’t want anyone next door to hear me . . .

    “And now it’s really over. I finally realized that I must do my school work to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, but . . . it remains to be seen whether I really have talent . . .

    “When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.

    “I haven’t worked on Cady’s Life for ages. In my mind I’ve worked out exactly what happens next, but the story doesn’t seem to be coming along very well. I might never finish it, and it’ll wind up in the wastepaper basket or the stove. That’s a horrible thought, but then I say to myself, “At the age of 14 and with so little experience, you can’t write about philosophy.’ So onward and upward, with renewed spirits. It’ll all work out, because I’m determined to write! Yours, Anne M. Frank

    For those of you interested in reading some of Anne Frank’s first stories and essays, including a version of Cady’s Life, see Tales From the Secret Annex (Doubleday, 1996). Next: Reviewing and revising your writing

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