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Report from Solar Power 2007 convention, Long Beach, California: Feed-in interest grows in the US solar industry

The recent Solar Power 2007 convention in Long Beach, California was kicked off by a combative, hilarious onstage interview with Ted Turner. The founder of CNN, turned solar entrepreneur, said that we must move at “warp speed” to stop burning fossil fuels, and never build another coal plant.

He suggested halving the US military budget, sending other countries PV panels instead of bombs and putting all efforts into producing the best renewable energy technology and getting it out as far and wide - and as quickly as possible. This means effective policy.

The conference was in fact dominated by interest in policy mechanisms, and one in particular: feed-in tariffs. CEOs, facilities managers, manufacturers, suppliers, entrepreneurs and policy analysts all called for their introduction in America. As this policy provides long-term, guaranteed, differentiated tariffs for different technologies, it is ideal for solar power.

Solar, as a more expensive technology, needs a mechanism that makes it cost-effective over the long-term, and feed-in tariffs, it would be generally true to say, assure buyers that they can pay off the technology within the first ten years, and then receive a premium income over the next ten years or more of the life of the system – or free electricity, depending on how you look at it.

The wider context for this policy guarantee is often lost. Solar PV provides the best technology for distributed generation of electricity. It decreases pressure – especially in peak periods – on the grid. Hot countries can use it to power air conditioning, instead of having to draw energy from conventional coal-fired power stations. The replacement of the fossil fuel energy system with a renewable energy system is vital in the global strategy to mitigate climate change, and this should be the bottom line. Sadly though, it isn’t.

The objections to feed-in tariffs – generally taking the form of a relentless attack from the conventional energy industry - are essentially meaningless, and bordering on the unethical, in the face of a proven, terminal threat to life on earth. Failure to address this critical point betrays pathologically misplaced priorities on behalf of the objectors, and legislators who allowed themselves to be dictated to by vested interests.

Once the facts are agreed, debate is of little benefit here. A system which guarantees fast renewables deployment across all technologies and scales, thus making the most of all natural resources in any jurisdiction, and does so at comparatively low cost, should not be in question. With the right policy design, it also pressures manufacturers to improve energy conversion efficiencies and drive down costs.

When the stakes are so high, the fact that we have a great policy in existence, proven to also create many thousands of different jobs in any one country, should mean that policymakers take a mature, responsible view of the problems and solutions, and quickly move to design a great policy for national or regional application.

While the big utility companies will fight any change to the energy system that is not on their terms, it must be recognised that the system is in desperate need of reform – even revolutionary change. Their profits will have to be found in a way that does not interfere with the massive expansion of renewables capacity. As their product – fossil fuels - is currently the greatest threat to life on earth, and certainly human civilisation as we know it, this should not even be a question. That things are still stuck in a business as usual mindset is testament to the fact that the political system and other power structures remain equally unreformed. Priorities continue to be distorted by entrenched conjunctions of interests, while national governments, overseeing the largest economies in the world, merely tell us to change our lightbulbs.

While making energy efficiency a science is central to our survival – indeed nature itself operates on the basis of the conservation of energy – the laws of sustainability dictate that we must also localise production and consumption. No policy instrument has had an impact like feed-in tariffs where the localisation of energy production is concerned. Distributed generation of renewables-derived electricity is just one of the changes that this century demands if we are to continue to live as we currently do. Developing countries can leap frog ahead to this model, and save the mega-projects of electrifying rural areas via costly grid extensions. Thin-film solar will slash the costs of electricity production, and it is likely that even better, cheaper technologies will come to market within a generation – allowing many economies and societies to harvest power at the point of use.

And that is just one part of the outlook for solar. Utility-scale projects using concentrating solar power (CSP) - or solar thermal – offer sun-drenched regions high levels of carbon-free power production to feed into the grid. Although these can and should also be supported by policy mechanisms, their long-term costs are already comparable with those of a coal-fired plant with carbon-capture and storage. The solar map of America shows huge areas which can be exploited to produce vast amounts of energy. Energy independence – at least from coal - is there for the taking.

Ted Turner said that the industry is not only the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century, but the greatest commercial opportunity in human history. Until the vested interests that oppose renewables are somehow brought into the fold, we will continue to undermine our chances of moving away from an antiquated, outmoded and dangerous energy production system. If the utilities are doing this in the name of profits, it may be time to work together on a new way forward, where everybody wins. The stakes are simply too high to let the current impasse continue.

London, UK.
Miguel Mendonca, World Future Council policy officer and author of Feed-in Tariffs.

Dan Harding | alfa
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