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Making Solar Competitive

Grid parity within a decade. Solar power possibly available to virtually the entire world. Acceptance by both the financial community and utilities. These are more than just dreams for 35-year industry vet Dr. Charlie Gay, but a slowly emerging reality.

I recently spoke to Gay, president of the equipment manufacturer Applied Materials Solar division and a one-time head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about solar’s prospects and what it needs to gain wider acceptance. And according to an Applied Materials survey, the public is ready, though its knowledge of the technology’s current use is lacking.

Much discussion of late has been around the lower costs, driven in part by China, but also greater volumes worldwide.

“Certainly the cost of manufacturing modules has continued to drop consistently and predictably, which is really one of the major strengths of any manufacturing industry where the benefits of economies of scale translate directly to a progress curve that these kinds of technologies are able to follow,” he said.

Worldwide installed capacity has nearly doubled in the past two years as a result. And at current growth rates, solar will be available to 98 percent of the world’s population in a decade, Gay notes.

“This is an exciting time, when we need to encompass a lot of new stakeholders:  financing institutions, utilities and government policymakers,” he said. “Now, it’s not a technology problem, it’s a problem of how do you take something that has the potential for dramatically changing the way we get our energy, but get it ramped up to be part of the context in ways we think getting our electricity.”

Globally, solar has an installed capacity worldwide of from 36 to 40 gigawatts, which represents a fraction of 1 percent of all generating capacity.

There’s confidence in the technology on the part of the American public, perhaps too much. That’s not a reflection on solar, but rather a mistaken belief that solar power provides much more energy than it actually does.

Applied Materials just released the results of its third annual Summer Solstice survey.

When asked about renewable power sources—including solar, hydroelectric, wind, geothermal and biomass — the survey found 32 percent of Americans believed solar energy is the most efficient renewable energy source, that is, the most easily converted from a raw material into useable energy.  One-fifth (21%) of Americans believe the U.S. is the solar energy leader, when in fact Germany, Spain, Japan and Italy use more solar power than the U.S and China is by far the global leader in solar manufacturing.

Today, less than one percent of U.S. energy consumption is sourced from solar energy. More Americans understand that solar energy makes up a small portion of the U.S. energy use mix (one-fifth in 2009 compared to one-third in 2011 believe solar energy provides anywhere from zero to five percent of U.S. energy consumption). Still, 51 percent of Americans incorrectly believe that solar energy makes up more than 5 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.

And that’s a perception that needs to be corrected for solar policies to align with its potential, it says here.

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