Solar America Initiative Starts Not with a Bang, but with a Whimper
The U.S. Department of Energy announced $168 million in funding to accelerate solar energy technology development, positioning the money as a giant boost to the future of photovoltaics. Will this really make solar cost-competitive with grid power in the next eight years? How meaningful is this announcement to businesses?
March 26, 2007
PerspectiveThe DOE's recently announced $168 million in funding will go to projects for developing solar technology. The funding is part of the Solar America Initiative, whose goal is to make solar energy cost-competitive with grid energy in the United States by 2015.
"Solar technology can play a crucial role in moving toward affordable net-zero energy homes and businesses, which combine energy efficiency and renewable energy produced on-site," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "Efficient buildings with solar power generation can help reduce peak demand and ease the need for expensive new generating capacity, transmission and distribution lines as our economy grows."
Turning point for solar technology?For a few of the emerging solar companies on the list, being elected for funding is a big moment -- although the publicity might end up being worth more than the federal funds.
For potential users of photovoltaics, this announcement isn't as exciting as it sounds, for a variety of reasons.
First, put the amount in perspective. The total funding, $168 million, is equal to about two months' U.S. financial aid to Columbia. California committed $3.2 billion for solar power installation rebates alone, under the California Solar Initiative.
John Mizroch, DOE Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, emphasized in an interview that the funding was up to $168 million. The actual funding is subject to negotiation with participants, and to appropriation from Congress, a process that has an abysmal track record.
Whatever amount is appropriated will be spread over three years. DOE expects the first year's funding to be $51 million. At the end of that year, the White House (and the DOE) will change hands.
Andy Karsner, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, highlighted DOE's selection of 13 industry-led solar technology development projects. He says the recipients will include 50 companies, 14 universities, 3 nonprofits, and 2 national labs. That's 69 entities, for an average of $2.4 million each.
Some of the participating companies are already claiming in the media that their awards will be far more than the average. For the larger recipients -- GE Energy, BP Solar, Dow Chemical, and Boeing -- even several million dollars doesn't go very far. BP Alternative Energy has an $8 billion commitment in capital from BP over the next ten years, and that has been criticized as being miniscule.
The SAI funding will be spread across a range of technologies, from utility-grade concentrating solar power, to building-integrated PV, to plug-ready residential units. If projects are selected from each of the announced fields, then no single technology will receive sufficient funding to push it very far ahead of where it is today.
What concerns me most is that this program may slow current adoption of PV. To put so little into solar research, and to publicize it so actively, may backfire. Potential users of solar power may decide to wait for the program to achieve its goal of grid cost parity, rather than investing in PV now. We need renewable energy adoption today, if not for the sake of our overloaded grid, then for the protection of our deteriorating environment.
One measure, of manyThe Solar America Initiative isn't the only federal funding program for solar energy R&D. Nor is it the only grossly under-funded research program for renewable energy.
Research is ongoing at the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado -- the same lab that had its funding cut, then partially reinstated after considerable negative press. Universities get federal grants for renewable energy research. And of course there are the federal tax incentives for installing solar energy systems.
Combine these with state programs and you have a considerable sum of money going into numerous projects and labs. Is it sufficient, and is it reliable enough for long-term research?
Calling for more research fundingNot according to Dr. Dan Arvizu, the head of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He called for a "sustained commitment" in a keynote at the Power-Gen Renewables conference earlier this month. He said that in the United States "we care about energy when the price at the gas pump is high, and we don't care about energy when the price at the gas pump comes down and is within our tolerance range. This is what's wrong with our policy. What we need to do is start thinking more aggressively."
Michael Eckhart, President of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE), told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Innovation last week that U.S. companies are barely scratching the surface of the potential for wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, tidal and other renewable sources of energy.
"The U.S. needs to accelerate its research and development for renewable energy tenfold and in the process strike a balance between near-term needs with investments in longer-term research and science that will produce the next generation of technologies. This way, the U.S. can compete for global leadership in those technologies," Eckhart said.
More on the Solar America InitiativeThe Solar America Initiative is part of the Advanced Energy Initiative announced by President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address. The Solar America Initiative is designed to accelerate development and lower the cost of PV to grid parity. In June, President Bush announced an increase in funding from $80 million to $148 million.
In a June, 2006, "Inside Renewable Energy" podcast, DOE Program Manager Steven Chalk and SAI Program Manager Craig Cornelius talked about how the program's funds will be allocated and where the program will go in the future.