Making Solar Sustainable: Inside a Solar Giant

The Renewable Energy Kids - Solar, Wind, Geo and Wave (wave to the folks, honey!) - are all growing up at different rates, having been nurtured in very different ways. Wave and Geo are pretty much still toddlers (although Geo has grown up in Iceland!). The bigger Kids, Solar and Wind, seem intent on shooting up, despite lack of good governmental nutrition in the US and elsewhere.

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Credit Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Solar, in particular has had a sprawling, complex international life. Off to a slow start initially, she's now zooming globally. Some pretty impressive utility scale solar installations are already up and running, with more on the way, from the Sahara to Arizona. Meanwhile, China's massive investment in photovoltaic panel manufacturing has sent solar panel prices plummeting, allowing the spread of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels throughout developing and developed nations alike. Developing nations are using cheap, off-the-grid Solar PV to leapfrog over the hurdle of nonexistent national grids, lighting remote bazaars, villages, jungle shacks and clinics, and fueling their cellphone banks, innovatively.

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Via Greenbiosolar.com

In developed nations, rooftop solar panels are spreading over everything, from parking lots and malls to sunny bungalows. The evolution of companies leasing solar panels in the US is accelerating this spread, from residential to commercial scales. Solar powered community programs are starting up in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Florida. Meanwhile, crowd-funding via Mosaic is giving Solar the needed upfront funding (low interest loans) so glaringly absent elsewhere.

PV applications are evolving in fascinating ways. Flexible thin film solar panels now offer the potential of solar windows, and of individuals powering pcs and other devices from their backpacks, for example. The prototypic spinning solar cell offers the dream of cities crowned with thousands of glittering, spinning sapphire blue cones, channeling ever more solar power. And this spring, a Swiss solar plane will fly across the US. Simultaneously, photovoltaic cells are diversifying and continuing to break new energy conversion efficiency records.
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Courtesy of Solar Impulse

But neighbors do gossip about the Kids, furtively whispering "Solyndra" and other fears. Mostly, they wonder about the expense of bringing up Solar and Wind and, and whether these Kids will ever become self-sustaining. Wind is so flighty, and Solar does have her dark moods.

Like any concerned mother, I went to have a more intimate look at the big solar sustainability picture - specifically, in nearby Belmont, CA, where SunEdison, a solar giant, has its main ROC (Renewable Operations Center). Acquired in 2009 by MEMC, a semiconductor and solar materials conglomerate, SunEdison is devoted to "simplifying solar" by "developing, financing, operating and monitoring solar plants for commercial, industrial and utility customers with no capital outlay," says the MEMC website. SunEdison is the largest North American provider of solar energy services.

The ROC recently celebrated management of now over 1 Gigawatt (GW) of solar power in global assets worldwide - over 600 installations in 9 countries. (The US currently uses over 1,000 GWs of electricity from all sources. ) Most of the managed power is derived from commercial scale utility installations, Vice President Mark McLanahan told me.

Inside the a la Star Trek control room, a team faced a wall of giant screens monitoring energy generation, worldwide installations, and supporting infrastructures (bridges, roads) in real time 24/7. One screen showed solar panels in Ottawa, covered with melting snow. Basically, the ROC keeps that 1+ GW of solar power sustainable worldwide. When problems arise, the team issues marching orders to field teams that correct the problems. Hurricane Sandy? They were out there prepping before the storm and restoring power after. And should a supplier go bankrupt, the company would simply modify its supply chains.

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SunEdison control room, Courtesy of SunEdison

SunEdison is also innovating overseas. In a demonstration of how solar panels can generate electricity while conserving scarce drinking water supplies, SunEdison has covered part of the Narmada Canal in Gujarat, India, with solar panels that act as shades and wind breaks, reducing evaporation and algal growth. Although only one kilometer in length, the installation saves 50 million gallons of precious drinking water yearly, a company representative informed me. Elsewhere, SunEdison has created a solar plant and microgrid that powers the remote Indian farming village of Meerwada, which would otherwise have no access to electricity. It's a demonstration of just how economically viable such an enterprise can be, paving the way for its viral spread thoughout the developing world.

MEMC Senior Vice President Steve O'Rourke sees SunEdison ultimately striving to create solar minigrids, intact solar "ecosystems", by supplying the entire infrastructure needed: the solar installation, the smart grid setup, and supporting infrastructures. The vision is decentralized solar grids that can eventually connect to each other in far more efficient smart grids over the next century.

SunEdison is just one example of the huge economic and energy vision that solar power offers us and is starting to happen globally. The policy-driven adoption of Solar PV in developed countries has already resulted in solar derived electricity as cheap as standard electricity in some areas of the world, including inside the US, and that parity is expected to spread widely and rapidly , even within the US within the decade. Even more recently, Germany has announced the achievement of reliable solar and wind derived power, by skillfully weaving them into a unified grid to smooth out the intermittency problems.

So, how are the older Kids doing? Just fine, thank you. They're growing, and becoming more sustainable and reliable all the time. And the sooner we vote in US lawmakers who understand this, the sooner the US stands to tap into the economic and environmental prosperity that comes with supporting renewable clean energy.

Indeed, BICEP, the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, a coalition of major US businesses representing about a half million US jobs and a half trillion dollars in yearly revenues, recently declared that

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And called on Congress to support investment in clean energy, energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. The United Nations just as recently declared that investing in clean energy would yield enormous health benefits worldwide.

So, as Earth Day 2013 approaches, let your Congressional senators and representatives know now that, come 2014, you'll be voting for whoever supports the Renewable Energy Kids. And then wish your kids a Happy Earth Day!