Learning About PV: The Myths of Solar Electricity

Solar electric, otherwise known as photovoltaic (PV), is a great business in the US. It is good on its promise of "delivering clean, reliable, on-demand power."

Progress and research continues, better positioning current and next-generation photovoltaic (PV) technologies to meet future electricity needs. However, these successes seem to spark some criticisms and questions. Some are warranties issues, some are based on partial truths, and others are perpetuated from urban legends or myths about the technology.

Common among these criticisms and questions are the seven myths of solar electricity:

Myth 1: Solar electricity cannot serve any significant fraction of U.S. or world electricity needs.

PV technology can meet electricity demand on any scale. The solar energy resource in a 100-mile-square area of Nevada could supply the United States with all its electricity (about 800 gigawatts) using modestly efficient (10%) commercial PV modules.

A more realistic scenario involves distributing these same PV systems throughout the 50 states. Currently available sites—such as vacant land, parking lots, and rooftops—could be used. The land requirement to produce 800 gigawatts would average out to be about 17 x 17 miles per state. Alternatively, PV systems built in the "brownfields"—the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation's cities—could supply 90% of America's current electricity.

These hypothetical cases emphasize that PV is not "area-impaired" in delivering electricity. The critical point is that PV does not have to compete with baseload power. Its strength is in providing electricity when and where energy is most limited and most expensive. It does not simply replace some fraction of generation. Rather, it displaces the right portion of the load, shaving peak demand during periods when energy is most constrained and expensive.

In the long run, the U.S. PV Industry Roadmap does expect PV to provide a "significant fraction of U.S. electricity needs." This adds up to at least 15% of new added electricity capacity in 2020, and then 10 years later, at least 10% of the nation's total electricity (PDF 674 KB).

Myth 2: Solar electricity can do everything — right now!

No way. Solar electricity will eventually become a major player in the world's energy portfolio. The industry just doesn't have the capacity to meet all demands right now. But assuming that the proper investments are made now and are sustained, the industry will become significant in the next few decades.

In 2000, for example, worldwide PV shipments grew by 37% from the previous year. In 2001, they grew by another 38%. Although this brought shipments to about 400 megawatts per year, it's hardly enough to meet the entire burden of U.S. or world electricity needs... yet.

Myth 3: Photovoltaics cannot significantly offset environmental emissions.

PV systems produce no atmospheric emissions or greenhouse gases. Compared to fossil-generated electricity, each kilowatt of PV electricity annually offsets up to:

If the industry grows by the 25% per year as predicted (see U.S. PV Industry Roadmap (PDF 674 KB)  PV in the United States will offset 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2027 — equivalent to the annual increase emitted by U.S. fossil fuel electricity generation. This means that the emission rate will become negative thereafter as the PV contribution grows!

Myth 4: Photovoltaics is a polluting industry.

The PV industry is neither "squeaky clean" nor a major environmental, safety, or health problem. When it comes to emissions, PV's electricity-generating portion of the fuel cycle is the clear winner versus fossil fuel sources. However, semiconductor processing can involve the use of chemicals and toxic materials.

Some 80% of the current PV industry is silicon. Basically, it uses the same processing as the semiconductor industry, which is touted as being comparatively clean. It also has the same risk. There are various codes, controls, and regulations in place that oversee PV silicon industry operations, ensuring that it's relatively safe.

PV materials that incorporate heavy metals or toxic materials are continuously scrutinized to ensure safety. To date, the Environmental Protection Agency, Underwriters Laboratories, and others have conducted testing and investigations that indicate no problems. But the programs and companies involved remain vigilant and active in ensuring safety. Industry has made many improvements in areas such as:

Myth 5: Photovoltaics is merely a cottage industry, appealing only to small niche markets.

This is a real business — one that has been growing by more than 35% per year over the past 2 years. In 2001, PV module shipments closed in on the 400-megawatt mark, representing a $2.5 to $3 billion market. The U.S.-based industry itself is now approaching $1 billion per year and providing 25,000 jobs. It's expected to grow to the $10-$15 billion level in the next 20 years, providing 300,000 jobs by 2025. This sustained growth exceeds that of the semiconductor industry.

A market shift has sparked the recent growth in the PV industry. It has shifted from almost completely remote, off-grid, and consumer products to nearly 60% grid-connected, distributed power. And these applications don't represent small niche markets. They represent the significant growth path for PV — the true distributed power source.

Myth 6: PV is too expensive and will never compete with "the big boys" of power generation. Besides, you can never get the energy out that it takes to produce the system.

The cost of producing PV modules, in constant dollars, has fallen from as much as $50 per peak watt in 1980 to as little as $3 per peak watt today. This causes PV electricity costs to drop 15¢-25¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh), which is competitive in many applications.

In the California market, where state incentives and net metering are in place, PV electricity prices are dipping below 11¢/kWh, on par with some utility-delivered power. Moreover, according to the U.S. PV Industry Roadmap, solar electricity will continue this trend and become competitive by 2010 for most domestic markets (PDF 674 KB).

The energy payback period is also dropping rapidly. For example, it takes today's typical crystalline silicon module about 4 years to generate more energy than went into making the module in the first place. The next generation of silicon modules, which will employ a different grade of silicon and use thinner layers of semiconductor material, will have an energy payback of about 2 years. And thin-film modules will soon bring the payback down to one year or less. This means that these modules will produce "free" and clean energy for the remaining 29 years of their expected life.

Myth 7: Nothing remains to be done. Essential R&D is complete, the product works — just close the laboratory doors and let industry fight it out.

As high-tech energy production, PV has immense potential to evolve, develop, and advance. Our current technologies still have substantial potential for improvement.

Research and development (R&D) in processing, process understanding, and manufacturing remains in its infancy. There is much important R&D still to be performed, not just on cells and modules, but also on balance-of-systems components and on systems themselves.

Many new and next-generation materials, devices, and physics are only concepts. Others are still to be discovered. Among these will be authentic breakthroughs that will boost PV to the next levels of performance. It is up to us to make and manage the investments to own these. Delays in making these investments will mean lost opportunities. First, it will take longer to bring this clean energy source into widespread use for us and our descendants. Also, there will be a loss of technology leadership and ownership.

Failing to take R&D leadership creates a pathway of diminished U.S. innovation, technology ownership, and energy ownership and control, as well as the loss of substantial economic benefits. Investing in PV R&D and clean solar electricity for you.


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