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Beyond Fossil Fuels: Barry Cinnamon on Solar Power

The CEO of Akeena Solar weighs in on the hurdles facing his industry
solar energy, renewable energy, solar panels



ANTENNA GROUP

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Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of solar power? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
Right now, homeowners and business owners interested in solar systems are concerned about two things—performance and reliability—as these factors play an important role in a system's return on investment. From a panel standpoint, the silicon solar panels on the market are just about as efficient as they can be, as the industry has labored intensively over the years to increase energy yield. Yet there are several other system components—we call them part of the balance of system—that can threaten the performance and reliability of a system and decrease the amount of energy harvested. Hardly any time and energy had been spent to improve the racking, wiring and electrical grounding elements.

Last year we introduced our Andalay system, which was the first major improvement in solar system design in more than three decades. As the first integrated solar solution, Andalay incorporates all the wiring, racking and electrical grounding elements into the panels themselves. Compared to traditional solar systems with a jumble of parts from various companies, Andalay's prefabricated panels decreased the parts used in panel installation by about 70 percent. The resulting streamlined process—our panels snap together like LEGO bricks—drastically reduced the room for human error that can compromise the integrity of a system. We've continued to improve the balance of system pieces to boost our system's performance and reliability. When you are designing a solar power system, the devil is in the technical details—many systems today still use 30-cent zip ties to hold together the exposed wires of a $30,000 system. Recently, we announced several upgrades, which included new stainless steel racking mounts and stainless steel clips that hold together exposed wires.

Efforts like these—and we are seeing a lot of new companies starting to stress balance of system improvements—will speed along solar adoption.

Are there obstacles to scaling up solar power to serve a larger national or global customer base?
Since I started my business in 2001, I've seen demand for solar power increase dramatically from year to year. Now that we are coming out of a period of silicon shortage into one of silicon oversupply, and we have a manufacturing infrastructure already in place, the residential installation industry is in a great position to meet a larger national customer base. Wherever the sun is shining and incentives are strong, we as an industry will be able to meet demand.

The only obstacle currently preventing the continued growth in the commercial sector is limited financing. Because many of these projects are so huge—often in the hundreds of kilowatts—many businesses need forms of financial assistance from big banks. With those lines of credit currently seized, moving these projects forward is challenging.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in solar power? Or does that, too, need further modification?
Our nation stands to benefit from an abundance of clean, renewable solar energy, and rooftop solar energy is an immediate in-grid answer. The problem is, the current energy infrastructure is outdated and the grid can't fully enable a greater demand for distributed sources of renewable energy. At Akeena Solar, we are encouraged by the proposed federal stimulus package with the inclusion of $11 billion to update our electrical grid [Editor's note: This survey was submitted before the stimulus bill was signed into law], even though we know much more will be needed to fulfill the promise of renewables as a viable source of our energy mix in the U.S. A "smarter" electrical grid is critical to shift to renewable sources like solar, helping America move to a low-carbon economy.
 
Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
As I mentioned before, in our current economic climate, there is not as much financing available for large-scale commercial projects. Nevertheless, increasing federal investment and last year's extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) are encouraging, especially for homeowners, as they make solar energy more affordable. As part of the current package working its way through Congress, the solar energy community is calling for those tax credits to become refundable—meaning businesses could take advantage of the tax credit regardless of their tax liability. This is an important step to help spur development in our industry. With strong public policy in place and increasing demand as a result of ever increasing electricity bills, you can expect to see a capital flow to solar power projects in the near future.

From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for solar: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
The major goal for solar and all renewable sources of energy is one in the same—grid parity—and right now cheaper, dirty sources of energy like coal and oil are our biggest competitors. Luckily, policymakers nationwide are realizing that what is cheap in the short term is not necessarily in the best interest of the U.S. from a financial and security standpoint in the long term. Electricity costs are continually increasing. And if you look at peak demand costs, generally daytime during office hours, solar energy is cost-effective. It also delivers benefits at times when the grid is strained, especially those hot summer days when the AC is cranked to full blast. In short, distributed generation helps reduce high costs at peak load times on the grid.

As we continue to bring down the cost of solar, we are optimistic that we can reach grid parity in a few years versus a few decades.

Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
Grid parity. Solar energy is already cost-efficient at peak demand but clearly more expensive than average cost. You can expect that solar manufacturers and installers over the next five years will be going into overdrive so that solar is cost-competitive at all times.

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