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Published on April 9th, 2015 | by Glenn Meyers


John Perlin PV Miniseries #14: How Public Policy Matters

April 9th, 2015 by  

Our interview with John Perlin continues for this segment of photovoltaics miniseries. In our 13th post, Mr. Perlin said, “Reagan came into office and declared war on solar technologies, which led the National Science Foundation’s chief scientist Lloyd Herwig to declare, instead of the United States, the Japanese and Germans would take over the market.”

Our series on PV provides tremendous background on the technology, and highlights the UN’s 2015 Year of Light.

perlinIf you haven’t read it, Perlin’s book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” provides an excellent backgrounder on the history of solar energy. This series details much about how the industry evolved to its present-day status.

For those missing info on this miniseries, here are previously published episodes:

  1. Author John Perlin Celebrates the Coming Year of Light
  2. Author John Perlin & the Solar Cell
  3. The Pathway to Today’s Solar Revolution: Discovering the Photosensitivity of Selenium 
  4. Photovoltaics Discovered in 1875: Interview with Author John Perlin
  5. Photovoltaic Dreaming: First Attempts at Commercializing PV
  6. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics Part 1 
  7. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 2 
  8. John Perlin Miniseries #8: Photovoltaics: Saved by Silicon – Part 1
  9. Photovoltaics Miniseries #9: Saved by Silicon – Part 2 
  10. Photovoltaics Miniseries #10: World’s First Practical Solar Cell Victim to Exigencies of Cold War
  11. Photovoltaics Miniseries #11: Nixon’s Solargate
  12. Photovoltaics Miniseries #12: Jimmy Carter’s War Against PV 
  13. John Perlin’s Photovoltaics Miniseries #13: Reagan Nukes Solar 

A physicist and teacher, Perlin has long been a proponent or solar energy. He reports not all has gone seamlessly for many solar innovators and their enthusiasts. Our interview continues with this in mind.

CleanTechnica: The solar cell was a remarkable technology that must have excited many, even if it failed to gain traction with our presidents. As you have said before, Daryl Chapin, one of the inventors of the silicon solar cell, published the first text on PV. Correct?

Perlin: Yes. He provided a kit for constructing a silicon solar cell, and advised his readers, mainly high school students, that though the solar cell they would make “delivers only 10 milliwatts , don’t be discouraged. We are standing near the beginning of a new era of solar uses.”

CleanTechnica: But it marked a beginning, correct?

Perlin: Absolutely. The first silicon solar cells were feeble. At the time of the public announcement in 1954 [of their availability] they consisted of a number of cells that delivered less than 1 watt. This increased to a megawatt by 1980.

CleanTechnica: But by then President Reagan declared war against solar, as you stated in your previous article, leading to the National Science Foundation’s lead solar advisor Lloyd Herwig’s dire prediction that Japan and Germany would take over the market solar.

Perlin: Sadly, his prediction came to pass. Starting in 1994, the Japanese government offered a generous subsidy to encourage the adoption of PV on the nation’s rooftops. By the time the program had ended in 2004 almost 400,000 Japanese households had installed PV, totaling a little over a gigawatt.

solar roof germany_shutterstock_242529349

Solar system on industrial roof in Germany via Shutterstock

CleanTechnica: What about Germany?

Perlin: Following the Social Democratic/Green victory in 1999, a new chapter in the story of photovoltaics began. The coalition cobbled together the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000, which committed the German nation “to facilitate a sustainable development of energy supply in the interest of managing global warming.” This was specifically, in support of photovoltaic’s. Its authors believed, “the long-term the use of solar radiation energy holds the greatest potential for providing an energy supply which does not have adverse impact on climate.”

Soon Germany eclipsed Japan’s top position in the international photovoltaic market. Once again, governmental policy led the charge.

CleanTechnica: You contend the growth of the solar PV market in both Japan and Germany was fueled via government programs?

Perlin: Yes. The key to the success of the Renewable Energy Sources Act was the premium offered that those using photovoltaics when selling their electricity to the grid. This new interaction is now known as the “Feed-in Tariff.”

CleanTechnica: Please elaborate on the net effect of the Feed-in Tariff.

Perlin: This generous offering opened the flood gates to using photovoltaics. PV use grew 40% in the first four years of the act, and by 2004 the production of solar cells broke the one gigawatt barrier.

The authoritative PV Status Report of 2005 attributed the act “as the driver of this growth. International markets associated with PV responded positively. Production of the essential feedstock for solar cells exploded. The Chinese government, eyeing great potential for selling to the German solar market, offered tens of billions of dollars in soft loans to entrepreneurs willing to expand module production. Innovations flourished. The result – better cells, cheaper cells.

Summing up the impact of the German program, the investment group the Motley Fool stated, “Germany decided it was time to make a big bet on solar. The country heavily subsidized the industry to make it economically viable long-term. The bet paid off.” 

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About the Author

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

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