The US Department of Energy just came out with an update to last year’s utility-scale solar power report, and it shows continued strong growth through 2015. That’s significant because the federal loan guarantee program that launched the US utility-scale solar market from virtually nothing actually stopped way back in 2011, as required by a 2009 law.
The continued growth of the US solar industry after the federal loan program stopped is also significant because Republican leaders and pundits used the program to bash the Obama Administration, the Energy Department, and the solar industry all throughout the 2012 presidential election cycle, after the company Solyndra went belly up in 2011.
Actually, it is former President George W. Bush who should be thanked (or bashed, as the case may be). The federal loans were issued under the Energy Department’s Loan Program Office, which was established through an Act of Congress that then-President Bush signed into law as the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The idea was to get US innovations out of development and into the marketplace, so the country could compete globally. The world solar market was just beginning to take off back then, and the US was far behind.
While President Obama took the heat for Solyndra’s failure, the fact is that the company began its loan application under President Bush. More to the point, the loan program as a whole was designed to absorb a certain measure of risk, and its successful recipients have created tens of thousands of new jobs.
The roster of success famously includes Tesla Motors, which grew so quickly that it paid off its federal loan way ahead of schedule. Somewhat ironically, Tesla is now leasing a former Solyndra facility in California. The solar giant SolarCity is also leasing another Solyndra building at that location.
For the record, Tesla and SolarCity are related through cleantech superhero Elon Musk. SolarCity also applied for a federal loan guarantee but the application fell through as the manufactured Solyndra “scandal” began hitting high gear.
US Solar By The Numbers
Although the SolarCity federal loan didn’t materialize, the Loan Programs Office can still be partly credited with getting the company off the ground. During the application process, SolarCity hooked up with Merrill Lynch, which was one of 14 financial institutions that the Energy Department partnered with for the Desert Sunlight project.
Last time we checked, SolarCity counted 13,000 employees on its rolls.
That brings us to the new Energy Department solar update. The folks over at the Loan Programs Office are happy to point out those same 14 institutions are behind many of the utility-scale solar projects that have launched with private financing after 2011.
As illustrated by the chart at the top of this article, utility-scale solar (100 megawatts and up) grew from zero to five projects with federal loans, then ballooned up to an additional 17 with private financing as of February 15. This week’s update puts the number of non-federal, utility-scale solar projects at 28, ranging across six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, and Utah.
How Low Can Solar Go?
The Energy Department also points out that the success of the Loan Programs Office for utility-scale solar has rippled throughout the solar marketplace, driving the cost of solar on its steep downward trajectory:
Federal dollars still play a huge part in driving that trend, even though the Loan Programs Office stopped providing new solar loans after 2011. That’s because another Energy Department program popped up to fill the gap.
We’re talking about the SunShot Initiative, which aims at bringing the cost of solar down to parity with fossil fuels. The initiative takes a soup-to-nuts approach for a whole raft of improvements over and above developing more efficient solar cell technology.
That includes pushing down the cost of solar cell manufacturing, and coincidentally (or not), an Energy Department protegé called Banyan Energy made news last week for introducing an “ultra-low-cost” solar manufacturing system.
Banyan got a lift from the Energy Department’s SunShot Incubator program for startups with $500,000 in funding:
Banyan Energy has taken a fundamentally new approach to concentrating sunlight. The company’s innovation is based on an optics breakthrough called aggregated total internal reflection (ATIR), in which light is concentrated, aggregated, and delivered to a focal area via a waveguide. With the DOE funding, the company has developed a flat 7x optic approach for concentrator photovoltaics (CPV), which promises to lower the cost of silicon PV modules and increase the scale of production. With this new technology, silicon module manufacturers can lower their capital-expenditure-per-watt manufacturing costs, increase the scale of module production by as much as five times, and encourage the adoption of silicon modules by tying in to the existing silicon infrastructure (meaning that cells, trackers, installation practices, and grid technologies can stay the same)…
It looks like Banyan has followed through on its R&D. According to last week’s news report, the company is licensing its “Optiwave” technology to silicon solar cell manufacturers, enabling them to dive under the 30 cents per watt mark.
Part of the savings comes from the “optically enhanced” structure of the cell, which requires 80% less silicon. The new system also eliminates an expensive laminating step.
Images (screenshots) via US Department of Energy
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