The big solar scandal in the USA has given some doubts as to the viability of solar power. The scandal involves a company by the name of Solyndra, a company heavily subsidized by the US government (some say “politically” subsidized) that recently declared bankruptcy.
However, let it be said that the solar industry continues to march on strong as ever. In fact,the US National Solar Jobs Census reveals that “Solar businesses added 6,735 new workers in all 50 states since August 2010, which represents a 6.8 percent growth rate.” The census runs August to August, during which time the US job market as a whole grew by just 0.7 percent.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance for 2011 reports a 68% annual growth in electricity production for solar power over the past five years (see graph below). This is amazing and astronomical and cannot go on forever. But it does mean that we can no longer call solar power “alternative energy”. It is mainstream and it can play its part in a multi-source electrical grid.
And what about Canada? The Centre for Energy says that Canada’s photovoltaic electricity generation capacity grew from 32.72 MW at the end of 2008 to 94.57. MW by the ends of 2009 – 200% growth! According to the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA), “Solar companies anticipate a significant growth of 101% in the number of full-time equivalents to be employed by the end of 2011.”
Canada started to take to solar in 2004 — and look what happened since then, from measuring in kilowatts to megawatts.
- A 2010 report by Purdue University’s “Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission”, residential electricity rates in that state are likely to increase by 12% to 2013.
- Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers has predicted that energy prices will increase by 30 percent over the next five years.
- According to a CBC report,” Canadian power rates will skyrocket an average of 50 per cent by 2020″.
Tam Hunt of the Santa Barbara Independent describes the current situation as, “We are in the elbow of an exponential solar growth curve that is going to transform how we produce and use energy.”
Will solar replace all other sources of electricity? Of course not. There is no single ideal energy source. Hydro and nuclear still represent a base source of electricity that remains constant at all times of day, at all times of year and through all kinds of weather. Solar fluctuates:
- There is more solar power available in summer than in winter.
- There is more solar power in the daytime than at night.
- There is more solar power on a sunny day than on a cloudy day.
These fluctuations make solar an insufficient source for the grid to rely on to meet its basic generation levels. But these fluctuations also make solar the ideal source to complement those basic levels.
- In the summer, when air conditioners come on in droves, solar is there to pick up the slack. Here in Ontario, the generating capacity stands at about 25,000 megawatts. Most days, we don’t reach that level, but on some hot days, demand exceeds 26,000 megawatts.”
- And in wintertime, solar can still contribute. Here in eastern Ontario in February, we get 68 percent as much solar radiation as we do in July. November is our low month, and even then we get 31% of July levels.
- In the daytime, when more electricity is needed, solar shines strong. At nighttime, much less electricity is needed (including for air conditioning, offices and retail electricity and most residential power). With a base of hydro or nuclear, solar is not needed at night.
- On cloudy days, air conditioners tend to work less, so less solar power would be needed. Keep in mind that some solar radiation still gets through (you can sunburn on a cloudy day), just less.
- Of course, solar has non economic advantages related to the environment and to a resource that will not be easily depleted, and also it can be generated in more diffuse locations meaning less loss of power through transmission lines.
So don’t look for solar to knock off other forms of electricity generation. But it has taken its seat at the table as a major player and it still has room for growth and might even one day generate the majority of our electrical needs.