Scientists, engineers and other members of the US solar photovoltaic (PV) industry are gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Telstar 1, the launch of which ushered in the area of modern, space-based telecommunications, as well as solar PV energy technology.
Telstar 1 was launched in July, 1962, amid the Cold War era “Space Race.” Some 3,600 solar PV cells met the pioneering satellite’s power needs as it began beaming the first space-based telephone calls and television broadcasts.
The successful launch of Telstar 1 marked a milestone in an era of US and Western scientific and technological innovation, and it’s one that solar PV industry participants hold particularly dear. “The advances marked just two milestones in a more-than-125-year solar strand of American industrial heritage that gives the solar industry special standing in the nation’s technology pioneering,” states the Coalition of American Solar Manufacturing (CASM) in a press release.
“In that light, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM) hails the approach of the Telstar anniversary as a time to recognize the inseparable lineage of U.S. solar ingenuity and manufacturing as a national industrial treasure. Today, solar manufacturing is realizing the promise of decades of American entrepreneurial striving by offering a robust source of rising energy security and independence.”
Bell Labs: Ushering in the Dawn of Solar PV… and a lot more
Since Telstar’s launch, solar-powered satellites have become a keystone of modern telecoms and computing technology. Equipped with remote sensing systems, they’ve been affording everyone from professional scientists, engineers, political and military leaders, on through to casual users, data and information on myriad phenomena to do with the atmosphere, the oceans, land use past and present, weather, climate, and the earth’s biosphere. They also became the primary tool in a new era of remote military and national security intelligence gathering.
Silicon solar PV and Telstar both came out of Bell Labs, “a powerhouse” in an unprecedented era of American industrial and technological ingenuity and innovation, CASM points out. In addition to silicon solar PV, the list of Bell Labs’ world-changing innovations include the transistor, the laser, and the forerunner of the UNIX computer operating system.
The history and legacy of Bell Labs is detailed in Jon Gertner’s book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, CASM notes.
US Solar PV: Carrying the Bell Labs Torch
CASM sees itself as a torch-bearer for the spirit of American ingenuity and innovation Bell Labs embodied. That tradition is being threatened by economic and trade regimes in state-driven, non-market economies, however, CASM asserts.
“If the industry becomes a casualty to illegal trade practices, it is unlikely to come back, and with its disappearance will go the vital thrust of development and research that otherwise could continue to grow solar-industry jobs and brighten U.S. prospects for energy security,” stated Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America Inc., the largest U.S. solar producer, and leader of CASM. “If better product performance or low production cost were winning the day, then so be it. But that is not the case.”
Gertner takes up the issue of American industry and innovation in his book on Bell Labs, CASM notes. “To think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing, comprises the most vital of combinations,” he writes.
China’s massive subsidization of silicon solar PV manufacturers and exports has had its benefits, but they’re not only unsustainable, CASM argues — they will, without adequate countervailing government support and action, result in the US forfeiting vital, key facets of the solar PV industry value chain to Chinese competitors.
The “United States’ solar-manufacturing know-how, workforce and innovation are too valuable to overlook and too critical to discard in the interest of artificially – and temporarily – low prices resulting from a predatory export drive sponsored by the government of China,” CASM states.
US Manufacturing Capabilities: A Solar PV Rallying Call
Solar PV today is seen as being at a tipping point of being able to compete with conventional sources of electricity without subsidies, which is actually a playing field that has been and continues to be tilted in favor of fossil fuels in any case.
Europe — of all places, given its less than always sunny climate — has led the world forward in terms of installing solar PV and creating a globalized industry supply and value chain. Moreover, the solar PV industry has become a driving force for gainful employment and economic growth domestically in countries around the world at a time when most of the world’s major economies have been weighed down, and nearly ruined, by excessive credit creation, misallocation of capital, and resulting bad debt.
Sustaining US Industry, and the Grid Parity Drive
Worldwide, solar PV capacity doubled in 2011. Progress toward grid parity has been exceptionally rapid, but government support is critical if the objective is going to be met. With Europe hobbling as a result of its debt problems, it’s imperative that China and the US pick up the slack and pick up the pace of solar PV installations domestically.
Thing is that China’s state-run solar PV industry exports some 95% of the silicon solar PV panels produced in the country. Furthermore, the Commerce Dept. has so far identified 10 categories of export subsidies that violate international trade rules with which it’s agreed to comply.
Filing two unfair-trade petitions, CASM, whose membership now exceeds 200 companies, is intent on trying to get the US government to better protect domestic solar PV manufacturers and the long-term sustainability of the solar energy industry, it asserts.
The upcoming 50th anniversary of Telstar and the legacy of innovation at Bell Labs it invokes offers an excellent opportunity to drive home its message. “The historical campus of Bell Labs is a 20-minute drive from our plant,” said Carlo Santoro, director of business development for CASM member MX Solar USA, the US subsidiary of Italy’s MX Group, which manufactures multi-crystalline silicon solar PV panels in the US.
“Domestic solar innovation and production as well as U.S. solar installation – which we will always have, regardless of production source – are the twin keys to continuing to open solar’s promise of rising energy independence and security and strong and growing factories and manufacturing jobs. To move forward, we first must fully recognize what’s at stake.”
The Commerce Dept. on May 17 is scheduled to issue its determination as to the extent Chinese silicon solar PV manufacturers have been dumping solar PV cells and panels in the US to the detriment of US manufacturers. If the Commerce Dept. determines that this has been the case, it will detail countervailing margins on Chinese imports that would be assessed as duties to offset the illegal trade practice.
*Photo courtesy: NASA Images
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