In the media frenzy surrounding the bankruptcy of Solyndra, which collapsed despite a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government, one piece of good information has been overlooked: the company’s demise resulted, in part, because of the huge decline in the price of photovoltaic panels.
Solyndra, which had a manufacturing plant in Fremont, couldn’t compete with PV panels made in China. And while that equation was bad for Solyndra, it wasn’t necessarily bad for the solar industry.
Tom Dinwoodie, the founder and chief technology officer for SunPower, one of the nation’s largest solar energy companies, has been trying to get the word out in recent months that “ferocious cost reductions” in solar manufacturing are bringing it closer to parity with the cost of new nuclear, new natural gas, and new coal.
“The public perception about solar is it’s too expensive and it can never scale,” said Dinwoodie, a Berkeley resident. “When we talk about evolving our energy systems, it’s a small-bit player. But solar is going to be a much bigger player much sooner than people realize.”
Dinwoodie will be talking about the facts and myths about solar energy on Thursday Oct. 6 at 7:30 pm. at LiveTalk, an interview series at College Preparatory School in Oakland. Quentin Hardy, a New York Times technology reporter – and Berkeley resident – will interview him on stage. The LiveTalk series is open to the general public.
That analysis that solar costs the same as new nuclear, coal, and natural gas is not universally embraced, and Dinwoodie is determined to debunk the bias against solar energy that characterizes it as a fringe, cost-prohibitive technology.
In the past few months Dinwoodie and Dan Shugar, who was the #2 person at PowerLight — a company Dinwoodie started in 1991 in a rented garage in north Berkeley and which was sold to SunPower in 2007 for $332 million — have been on the road, speaking to journalists and policy makers in New York and Washington, D.C. about solar. The two men, who paid for their own tour, are responsible for developing $3 billion in solar projects around the world, according to ThinkProgress.com. (Shugar is now CEO of Solaria.)
The solar energy business has expanded considerably in recent years, prompting a sharp drop in the price of PV modules. It is approaching “grid parity,” the term used to describe the time solar will become as cheap as fossil fuels, said Dinwoodie. It takes more than 20 years and a huge amount of money to build a nuclear power plant, for example, and if you factor in time as well as costs of nuclear, solar looks competitive, particularly in sunny places like southern California and Hawaii, he said. Coal plants are relatively inexpensive to build, but require fuel to run.
“Solar is economic today in many markets,” said Dinwoodie. “Solar prices have been coming down steadily, while costs of other energy have risen.”
In Germany, for example, people have put so many solar panels on their rooftops that solar has produced six to seven gigawatts of power, equal to six or seven nuclear power plants, said Dinwoodie. There are parts of Germany and Spain that get 40% to 50% of their energy from renewables.
Of course getting this message out is not easy at a time when Solyndra’s collapse has unleashed a political backlash against solar energy. In the last few weeks, solar has become a major issue in the partisan battles in Washington. On Monday, presidential hopeful Newt Gringrich called for President Obama to fire Energy Secretary Steven Chu for what he called “mismanaging taxpayer dollars.” Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee intend to ask Chu to explain himself.
“Solyndra is not a winner in this sector,” said Dinwoodie. “They are a victim of the success of the solar industry.”
To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.