No doubt there is an upfront cost incurred by solar—that of adapting the grid’s infrastructure and operations to handling increasing amounts of intermittent solar energy. When full context is included and net values are compared, however, solar may well be our least expensive option to generate electricity. Most fundamentally, the long-term economic soundness of solar technology resides in the fact that it is a natural energy breeder that can drive a growing economy for the long haul. A solar panel will generate many times the energy required to make it over its life.
Intermittency is perhaps the biggest perceived negative. Passing clouds, weather patterns, nighttime and changing seasons are clearly issues to be dealt with. But they have solutions, and these solutions will not cancel out the overwhelming value of solar. They include intelligent deployment, new forecasting capabilities that will enable effective demand management, energy storage, long-distance interconnection and combination with other renewable resources, such as wind power.
I personally view the challenges of matching demand and the planet’s most abundant resource as an incredible opportunity for technological and economic development. For instance, taking advantage of growing new electric demand sectors, such as electric transportation, will open the door to new ways of thinking and new inventions in load management and electricity pricing.
One country seems to have figured this out and is putting such solutions into action right now. With a solar resource considerably smaller than the U.S. has, Germany plans to produce 80 percent of its electricity by 2050 from renewables, and solar will be a major part of this switchover. Germany already generates 22 percent of its energy from renewables, up from 3 percent in 1990. The U.S. has a much easier task: more sun, more space and a demand for electricity—driven substantially by air conditioning—that is well matched to the solar resource. The U.S. could easily shoot for 100 percent. Many other countries could as well.