Solar Comes to (Part Of) The Earth

Date: 18 Dec 2003 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Solar Comes to (Part Of) The Earth

by David Morris

Originally published in Alternet, December 18, 2003

Solar energy is wildly popular. For good reason. Free and universally available sunshine can dramatically reduce our dependence on global energy conglomerates and imported oil.

The key fact is this. In most parts of the world sufficient sunlight strikes the surfaces of buildings on an annual basis to power an efficient household and an efficient electric car.

The technology that uses sunlight to generate electricity is called a solar cell or photovoltaic. A paper-thin semiconductor device, the solar cell has no moving parts. The resulting high reliability and maintenance free properties of the solar cell have made it cost-effective for certain applications despite its sky-high price.

In 1955 the first commercial solar cell sold for $1,785 per watt (in 1955 dollars). Its electricity cost 1,000 times more than conventional electricity. In 1958 the space satellite Vanguard I was powered by a tiny 0.1W solar cell. In 1962 Telstar used a 14W solar array. In 1966 the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory was powered by a 1,000W (1 KW) array, big enough to supply about 20 percent of the needs of one house.

In the early 1970s solar cells came down to earth. Still frightfully expensive (more than 100 time the cost of conventional electricity) their high reliability made them competitive for applications not connected to the conventional electricity grid – mountaintop radio repeaters, ocean buoy lights, and highway emergency phones.

In 1977 global production of solar cells grew to 500KW, enough to power 100 homes. By 1983 worldwide production was sufficient to power some 4000 homes.

Over the next decade the solar cell industry expanded slowly but continually, although their use in remote applications made the technology largely invisible to the general public. The growth of the industry and the Gulf War’s sobering reminder of the fragile nature of our fossil fuel supply led both Japan and the United States to launch major solar cell initiatives.

Japan’s New Sunshine Project began in 1995. It was popularly known as the “70,000 Roofs Program,” the number of grid-connected residential installations it promised to have by 2002. In 1997 President Clinton launched the Million Solar Roofs program. In theory the different numerical goals implied a much more aggressive American effort. In practice the U.S. program had virtually no resources and achieved little national impact.

Indeed, when observers compare national solar cell programs they often ignore the inactivity of Washington and focus on the pioneering initiatives by California’s local and state governments. To this day the center of the U.S. solar cell program is in Sacramento. In 2002 almost 50 percent of all new installations in the United States were in California.

California’s admirable effort, however, could not compensate for the feeble federal program. The statistics tell the story. In 1996 the U.S. was the world’s leading producer of solar cells, manufacturing 60 percent more than Japan. By 1999 Japan had surged ahead. By 2002 it was producing twice as many solar cells as the United States and almost half the world’s total production.

In 1994, 500 Japanese homes had rooftop solar cells. By 2002 the number surpassed 65,000. Some 40,000 were installed in 2002 alone. Ironically, at this rate Japan may achieve President’s Clinton’s solar roof goal by 2010. Meanwhile, President Bush proposes to cut the federal solar cell program.

Tellingly, visit the Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs (MSR) website and click on the button, “How’s MSR doing?” and you get a blank page!

Why this stark difference between the U.S. and Japan? Japanese government and corporations worked together to develop and implement a coherent, aggressive and purposeful program for solar cells as they did successfully for hybrid electric vehicles. By contrast, in the U.S. the public sector established goals but the private sector refused to accept the responsibility of achieving them, the same thing that occurred with the U.S. hybrid car program.

As with hybrid cars, Japanese corporations were willing to invest in building large solar cell manufacturing facilities in the expectation of future sales and profits. American corporations waited for a large demand to materialize before committing major resources.

Sharp Corporation, for example, announced in June 1997 that it would expand production forty-fold by 2002, from 5 MW to 200 MW. In 1997 total world demand for solar cells was somewhat less than 200 MW.

A recent report to the European Commission reflects on the different way in which Japanese and American corporations go about their business. “(T)he announcement about the increase in (solar cell) production capacity in Europe and the U.S. often lacks the information about completion time compared to Japanese. Due to the Japanese attitude that a public announcement reflects a commitment, the pressure to meet a given time target is higher in Japan than in the U.S. or Europe where delays are more acceptable.”

The report adds another reason why the solar cell industry is strong in Japan and weak in the United States: the lack of a rapidly growing internal market. “A strong home market like in Japan…is missing in the U.S. This might be one of the reasons why the U.S. lost its market leader position it had held for many years and is now at third place behind Japan and Europe.”

Today no American company is in the top five solar cell manufacturers. In the United States the leading solar cell providers, BP Solar and Shell Solar, are foreign owned. Japanese companies occupy two of the top three spots and may soon occupy four of the top five. Sanyo, Sharp and Kyocera are all planning to build 200 MW plants this year.

The solar cell industry may have finally reached the take-off stage. The International Energy Agency reports a staggering 50 percent increase in solar cell sales in 2002 over 2001. Worldwide production capacity should exceed 1 GW (1,000 MW) in 2003, sufficient to power 200,000 homes. Japan, which reached its 400 MW target on schedule in 2001, has embraced a new target of 4,800 MW by 2010. That translates into enough electricity to power almost three million homes.

In 1992 only 29 percent of worldwide solar cell sales were for applications connected to the electrical system. By 2001 that had reached 68 percent and today exceeds 80 percent. Manufacturers now offer solar cells built into roof shingles and siding. Electricians are rapidly learning the new skills needed to install and maintain these devices. The cost of solar cells has come down to $6 per watt. If it drops to $4 per watt it will be competitive in many industrial countries, including the United States. California is debating a bill that would require the majority of new homes in that state to come equipped with solar cells.

The age of solar has finally dawned. The good news is that Americans will soon be able to rely on the sun to meet most of their energy needs. The bad news is that the tens of billions of dollars they spend to achieve this goal will go to Japanese, not American corporations. That is the price we will pay for our inability to convince American companies to shoulder their responsibility for building a sustainable, democratic, renewable energy future.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance ( and author of Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.