Clean Power

Published on May 16th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


The Future Of Solar Is Brighter Than Ever

May 16th, 2013 by  

By Richard Swanson, IEEE Fellow; Co-founder and President Retired of SunPower Corporation

In 1973, I was a young man just out of graduate school. That was the year of the oil crisis. I remember standing in the gas lines along with everyone else wondering, how in the world did we ever get into this mess?

That’s when I came to the realization that we had to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Personally, I was very eager to do something about it. I earned my degree in the field of microelectronics, but that was already a maturing field. My chances of making a significant impact were small. By contrast, the renewable energy field was new and exciting. I felt I could get in early and help bring about real change.

I chose photovoltaics (PV) over other forms of renewable energy because I was trained as a solid state physicist. I thought it was an area where my background was well suited. Solar cells were being used on satellites, a concept I found extremely intriguing. The challenge was to figure out how to make the cells — which were extremely expensive to produce — more cost-effective.

Now that the price of generating solar power is, in some cases, on par with the price of electricity generated from fossil fuels, I can say with confidence that all these years of hard work have paid off.  PV has gone mainstream. On an annual installation basis, the global solar industry has grown 10-fold in the past five years.  Over the past 10 years, its grown 60-fold.

Frankly, I always knew this day would come. I also knew it would be a long-term commitment – I just didn’t know it would take quite as long as it did. The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you have to stick with it through thick and thin. Since 1975, the PV industry has been through many ups and downs. There have been periods where PV was touted as the next big thing. There have been other periods where no one seemed to care at all.

The solar industry is attracting many talented engineers and entrepreneurs. My advice to people coming into the industry is to not worry about the next down period. Don’t get discouraged because the long-term factors are still very much in favor of PV, and the industry will continue to develop and improve for many years to come.

In fact, I would say the one factor most responsible for PV’s success is the tremendously dedicated and talented people who entered the field over the last several decades. They have enabled this tremendous progress. Similarly, the continued success of PV, including the ability to further increase efficiency and drive down prices, will rest on the shoulders of the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs who enter the industry.

Indeed, over the past several years solar has progressed so fast and so far, that many people are not even aware of the advancements. Growth rates have been in the neighborhood of 58 percent on average year-to-year over the past five years, or 50 percent on average year-to-year over the last 10 years. And panel prices have come down approximately 40 percent in the past 12 months, nearly 60 percent in the past 18 months and almost 70 percent in the past two years.  The cost of solar has dropped about 97 percent in the last 28 years.  In 1980 it was $23 per watt and in today, it’s in the range of $0.68 per watt.

The result is that a lot of people who aren’t watching the solar industry have outdated ideas about the state of the market. I’ve even come across people who have said with a straight face that it makes no sense to do solar because it takes more energy to make a panel than what the panel will ever produce. That may have been true 40 years ago, but it’s not even close today.

Most people realize that this is the century when we must unwind our dependence on fossil fuels. That means we have somewhere between 50 and 100 years to do it. This is no time to be backing away from renewables like solar. This is the time to go all in.


Dr Richard SwansonDr. Richard Swanson is a Fellow of IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization, and Co-founder and President Retired of SunPower Corporation, a leader in global solar innovation.

Considered one of the premier authorities on crystalline-silicon solar cell technology, processing and manufacturing, Dr. Swanson has enabled solar power to become a viable clean-energy resource. He co-founded SunPower Corporation in 1985, serving as Vice President and Director of Technology from 1990 to 1991, CEO and President from1991 to 2003, President and Chief Technical Officer from 2004 to 2010, and President Emeritus and Chief Technical Officer from 2010 until his retirement in 2012. Prior to SunPower Corporation, Dr. Swanson served as a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.

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  • Great article! I’m really excited about the possibilities of solar.

    It won’t be long before the majority of people will be generating their own electricity through solar. But also, cheap clean solar energy can provide real solutions for some of the poorest people in the world.

    In Kenya, many people are now able to afford solar power systems that are big enough to provide lights and mobile phone charging for individual rural households.

    For people who otherwise depend on candles or kerosene lamps for light at night, the benefits are substantial – reducing fire risks, carbon emissions, indoor air pollution and respiratory diseases, while stimulating micro-enterprises and improving school results.

    I work for an international development charity called Practical Action, and we are using solar power in drought-stricken areas of Kenya to provide safe, clean water using a solar powered water pump. You can find out more about this project here:

    The future of solar is certainly brighter than ever – and not just for those in the developed world.

  • Steeple

    I am a student of free markets and have struggled with the Federal govt reaching beyond its traditional role of supporting R&D. Howeer, happily I have become a believer in the ability of solar to compete in a variety of applications. For so many practical, locational and aesthetic reasons, solar looks like it beats the pants off of Wind as the technology we should be emphasizing.

    • anderlan

      It’s such a hard struggle, watching all that money get wasted in the PTC and specific R&D portfolios, I know, when ONLY 5 billion a year goes to oil and gas. Such a “struggle”.

      High and rising price on fossil carbon, injected back into the wider economy as equally and broadly as possible (decades-long payroll tax holiday or simple monthly checks to everyone). Let the market figure out how to kill oil & gas. Let the market work.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Wind beats the pants off solar because the wind blows a lot more hours per day than the Sun shines.

      Our future grid will almost certainly be a combination of wind, solar and other renewables along with enough storage to make them work. The more electricity we can use directly from the source, the less storage we will have to install.

      Market forces will see that wind plays a major role on the grid. Storage does not create energy, it’s an added cost to electricity regardless of what the generation source is.

      As a student of the mythical free market you should have instantly recognized this. While there are no free markets, never have been, probably won’t ever be, there are market forces. And, when not too heavily interfered with, move activity to the lowest cost suppliers.

      Solar-directly used and wind-directly used are cheaper than stored-solar and stored-wind. Even if solar were to drop a penny or two below wind the extra cost of stored solar would not make it competitive with wind used fresh from the turbine.

      That’s your market reality lesson for today.

      Chew on it.

    • arne-nl

      The EEG in Germany has provided a stable incentive for the roll out of solar technology. That in turn has had to two consequences. First the price reductions through economy of scale and secondly lots of money flowing into the industry and, by consequence, into R&D. The manufacturers were free to spend this money how they saw fit. In other words, the free market decided where and how this money was spent.

      On the other hand, what you propose is the government deciding which research and which companies/universities deserve support. That is government picking winners and losers. Where did I hear that before?

      So, if you are a free market enthousiast you should LOVE the ptc.

    • Hans

      As soon as there are unaccounted external costs, free market don’t give the optimal result to society, and corrections are necessary. Fossil fuels cause enormous external costs. If these would be taken into account, wind energy would not need any support.

      Question: Why are free market ideologists only critical about support for renewable energy and not about support for fossil fuels?

      Answer: They are not really free market ideologists, but defenders of the status quo.

      • Bob_Wallace

        That’s the case here in the US. “Conservatives”/the right wing is made up mostly of people who don’t want things to change.

        Some enjoy the advantages of whites/males having more than a fair share of power. Equality would make them compete against everyone.

        Some just have personalities that make them wary of change. For them, change is scary and not an adventure.

        And then there are the corporate interests, the fossil fuel industries, who have everything to lose when we quit using their products.

        They talk about a “free market”, but they don’t believe in a free market. They believe in a market that is structured to assist them. And they look at things which even out the market, but take away their advantages, as harming the free market that exists only in their heads. They refuse to acknowledge the market advantages they enjoy.

        So we’ve got one group who is fighting for their own fortunes who have recruited the ‘wary of change’ by feeding them a lot of FUD about what change is and could bring.

  • Ross

    Thank you on behalf of everyone.

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