Solar Power: What Next for America?

Solar Power Array - Solar Roof

Before U.S. President Barack Obama took charge in 2009, solar power generation was dismal. The country’s output was just 22 MW, and it was projected to grow only up to 140 MW by 2015. The United States produced 8,137 MW in 2015.

There were no solar power plants in 2008 and today, there are more than 50 of them.

What changed?

Solar power became cheaper to produce simply because the initial cost of photovoltaic cells came down. And this happened as a direct result of policy. Government subsidies encouraged the installation of solar panels on roofs, and as demand grew, PV module factories came up in China. They improved on manufacturing efficiencies by making the panels thinner and also changed the way cells were structured on panels, so that there was more energy output from the same area. As they produced more, they kept on finding ways of bringing the costs further down, such as reducing the usage of silver paste.

Back in the United States, the Obama administration provided $4.6 billion to finance the nation’s first solar power plants. Contractors also learnt how to better install solar panels on roofs, so that maximum sunlight was captured – and transferred into energy. All these significantly brought down the cost of solar power, enough to compete with gas, and it is set to fall even further, thanks to declining inverter and rack costs (this too has been brought about by advances in technology). Installation charges are also falling as contractors can now do in an hour what they used to take up a whole day for.

This tremendous amount of progress stands to be reversed if President-elect Donald Trump has his way. He has promised to lift restrictions on the production of fossil fuels (worth $50 trillion at today’s rates) within 100 days of assuming office. That would bring down the cost of fossil fuels, and the energy from fossil fuels would become cheaper than solar power. An estimated 3.4 billion tonnes of additional carbon emissions would also follow, and Trump does not seem to care for the Paris Agreement. He believes in saving the $100 billion that Obama has committed to furthering the cause of renewable energy under the Clean Power Plan.

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Fossil Fuel Power Plant

As the results of the election were announced, the stock price of Glencore, the world’s largest coal trader, increased 5%; while stocks of solar power companies plunged by 6-17%.

More than just business?

Debbie Dooley, a Republican and one of the founders of the Tea Party, believes numbers don’t tell the whole story. As President of the United States, Trump will also have to deal with security concerns; and it is no secret that a coast-to-coast power blackout could be brought about if terrorists targeted just nine key substations out of a total of 55,000 in the country. With solar panels on rooftops that generate enough power for their own needs, people would have no cause to worry.

Dooley, who started Conservatives for Energy Freedom, also points out that solar power could reduce America’s dependence on oil-producing nations; and even make it a net exporter of energy. It would easily surpass China, which is poised to be the leader in this segment.

This would make America the go-to nation worldwide – something the President-elect wants as part of his ‘Make America Great Again’ promise. comment