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Solar Energy: A Global Perspective
Alexandre Y. Fong
Germany, Spain and Japan are leading the world in integrating solar technologies into their
energy policies. Now, the United States is starting to make solar a priority as well. Here, Alex
Fong reviews solar policies around the globe and highlights successes and challenges.
Solar technology is certainly not new,
but its prominence in the energy
policy marketplace is. For the past three
decades, the cost of electricity has been
relatively low, so there has not been much
incentive to develop solar-based solutions.
Now, however, worldwide energy
demand is soaring. Although prices
have declined recently due to the recession, there is little doubt that growth in
energy-hungry developing economies
such as China and India will escalate the
demand once the economy recovers.
There is also a clear consensus in the
scientific community that a continued
reliance on fossil fuels may result in a rise
in global temperatures. According to the
U.S. Department of Energy, on average,
humans are emitting 16 million tons of
carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours.
For these reasons, solar technology has
taken on fresh relevance in the minds of
both policymakers and the public. Many
countries, including Germany, Spain and
Japan, have already recognized the need
to integrate alternative energy sources
into their policies early in the decade.
They have developed programs that have
put them at the forefront of solar and
wind power today. In 2008, world solar
photovoltaic market installations reached
a record high of 5.95 GW—an increase
of 110 percent over 2007 figures; Europe
accounts for 82 percent of the demand.
The United States has lagged behind
other countries in developing solar and
other clean-tech sources. However, the
Obama administration’s explicit support
for such initiatives, and his appointment of OSA Honorary Member Steven
Chu as Secretary of the Department
of Energy, signal a fundamental policy
shift. Chu’s appointment underscores the
pivotal role that technology and R&D
will have in identifying the next generation of energy solutions.
The administration plans to double
the production of alternative energy
in the next three years. Solar power—
both thermal and photovoltaic—is a
key component of a policy portfolio
that leverages wind, biofuels, hydrogen
power, natural gas, hydroelectric energy
and nuclear power. In his speech to
Congress, Obama proposed as an objective to “ensure [that] 10 percent of U.S.
electricity comes from renewable sources
by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.”
In addition, the current stimulus bill
includes a provision of $6 billion in loan
guarantees for renewable energy projects,
with a focus on solar, and $79 billion in
renewable energy, energy efficiency and
green transportation programs.
The U.S. Solar Energy Industries
Association says that it expects much
activity in 2009 in the expected energy
bill, which is likely to include provisions
to upgrade and expand U.S. transmission infrastructure and put a renewable
portfolio standard with specific goals or
requirements for solar in place.
Global impact, global policy
Despite its limited exposure to sunlight,
Germany has emerged as the leader
in solar energy, producing half of the
world’s solar power. This is largely due to
a progressive political climate that favors
alternative energy, and specifically the
introduction of the Renewable Energies
Laws in 2000. These laws fund incentives
to develop and commercialize solar by
adding charges of about a tenth of a cent
to the consumer cost of power from old-line utilities. Solar panels are ubiquitous
and integrated throughout Germany’s
infrastructure; 75 percent of the world’s
largest photovoltaic plants reside there.
More than 500 firms participate in
Germany’s $9.5-billion solar industry,