As a warm-up for the Intersolar North American Conference in San Francisco this week, I had the opportunity to visit SunPower’s Richmond facilities in addition to their Milpitas manufacturing plant in partnership with Flextronics.
Julie Blunden, Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Policy, was on hand in Milpitas to share her unique insight into the solar industry with a small group of journalists and bloggers.
The past few years, as we all know, has seen a pernicious recession persist throughout the global economy, with increasing volatility from conventional energy sources, and an intractable lack of jobs. It’s been a tough five years.
But in the face of all that, or maybe even because of it, Blunden explained why now is a great time to be bullish on solar.
Solar has experienced explosive global growth of late, delivering jobs and steadily declining costs.
Clearly, solar has arrived.
“We’ve come an enormous way in the last five years,” says Blunden. “If you think about what we’ve accomplished; we’ve gone from something on the order of about 2,000 megawatts a year to last year almost 20,000 megawatts installed globally across the industry.
20,000 megawatts is the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactors in scale. It’s a massive amount of power being deployed around the world.”
But most of that growth hasn’t been here in the US, says Blunden.
“…85 percent of that [growth of installed solar] was in Europe. Europe has been extremely aggressive moving forward,” she says.
That success is confined to only one or two countries, principally Germany, whose evolving feed-in tariff (FIT) has defied the political odds to sustain a commitment of hundreds of billions of Euros over the life of the 20-year FIT in Germany.
“What we haven’t seen is another country on Earth willing to uncap a budge for solar like that,” says Blunden. “What will pick up in the US – dramatically – over the next few year is the power plant business. We are just within spitting distance of ground-breaking of our first central station power plant in the United States in San Louis Obispo. It’s a 250 megawatt tracking power plant that we bid to PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) back in 2007. Think about that – four years from bid to groundbreaking.”
SunPower’s announcement of the project in August of 2008 represented a “tectonic shift” in thinking for the entire industry.
“In fact,” say Blunden, “the utilities were like ‘you’ve gotta be kidding, isn’t this stuff for roofs? 250 megawatts? Are you serious?'”
In fact, Sunpower is very serious.
“Our largest deal we’ve ever announced was in January of this year with Southern California Edison… that’s incredible, that is a 711 megawatt deal; it’s two power plants in different parts of the state. And what’s incredible is that those contracts are below the cost of natural gas. So if you asked the utility ‘would this have been less costly for our electric customers than if you bought a gas plant,’ the answer is ‘yes.'”
A solar power utility-scale plant built and operated for less than the cost of a fossil fuel plant. That isn’t a pipe dream, it’s happening right now.
Does the solar power industry have a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream source of global energy supply? Of course it does. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will be the new energy economy. But the phenomenal growth in the past few years shows that a clean energy future is not only possible, but if we’re committed enough, it just might arrive sooner that we dared think just a few short years ago.
“We need to continue to grow,” says Blunden, “and become a material part of the new generations of resources around the world.”
In other words, it’s time to be bullish on solar.
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