The three canonical reasons to support development of alternative energy sources have been increasing energy demand, rising energy costs and climate change. To these now must be added political instability in oil producing regions and technological risks associated with traditional energy production approaches, notably deep ocean drilling and nuclear power. As the risks to U.S. energy security, writ large, grow, so too does the need to exploit every available means of reducing that risk.
No single source, be it fossil fuels, natural gas or nuclear power can address all these needs. Renewables too must play a part. But, of all sources of energy they play the least role, amounting to only 8 percent of total U.S. energy production. Yet renewables, notably wind and solar, have the potential to make the greatest contribution to feeding U.S. demand for reliable energy at stable prices.
The opportunities provided by solar energy are almost incalculable. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology can be applied almost everywhere, and at almost any scale from individual homes and businesses, to factories and utility-level installations. Moreover, the cost of solar installations has been dropping sharply in recent years. There are credible estimates that with some supporting investments by government and utilities, PV can achieve price parity with standard forms of energy by 2020. Some experts believe that even current generation solar, particularly PV, is approaching cost or grid parity particularly in high cost areas such as Hawaii and California.
While the potential is there for solar technology to transform energy production in the United States, many challenges remain to the achievement of cost-effective solar power. These include continuing to reduce the cost of individual solar modules, development of a supporting infrastructure for utility-level solar power and development of an appropriate regulatory and licensing regime conducive to the expanded use of solar energy. Concentrated solar power plants in areas of the Southwest United States could readily be competitive with current oil and gas-fired plants. With the proper incentives and regulations in place, solar can address both the demand and cost sensitivities of the current
U.S. energy production system while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, in some cases, even reducing customer energy costs.
There are a number of steps that must be taken in order to address the challenges confronting viable solar photovoltaic power. A number of these have been identified in the Obama Administration’s SunShot Initiative. The SunShot Initiative seeks to bring down the full cost of solar power by 75 percent before 2020 by investing in critical enablers: technologies for solar cells and arrays; electronics that optimize the performance of solar installation; solar module manufacturing processes; and the efficient designing, installing and permitting of solar energy systems.
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