Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The changing cost of solar panels

The LED shop sends me emails from time to time. Usually when I buy stuff online I make sure to switch off all the email notifications, but for some reason I didn't when I got the LEDs for our house, and I have never unsubscribed from their mail magazine. It's not too frequent and is a regular reminder of how much LED lights cost. The last message also had a solar panel, at 25,000 yen for 200 Watts. This seems pretty reasonable and made me wonder about grid parity, and the march of technology.

​Solar panel costs in the US have fallen by a factor of a couple of hundred since the 1970s. That was when Jimmy Carter put panels on the White House roof, and set a target for 20% of US energy to come from renewables by the turn of the century.

The panels were thermal, rather than photovoltaic, and Carter predicted they would still be producing cheap clean energy in the year 2000.

And they would have been, too, if it hadn't been for Ronald "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do" Reagan. He quietly removed them in 1986, as he was removing department of energy research into clean energy and removing subsidies for wind and solar power.

This was after receiving 270,000 dollars in 1981 from oil executives in appreciation for deregulation of oil prices, estimated worth 2 billion dollars to the oil industry.

The target to get 20% of energy in the US from renewables would have been met if research and subsidies had carried on. Instead, the research and development has gone into adding power to the energy industry.  

Carter said “a generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.” And as it turns out some of them are in museums: the Smithsonian, the Carter Library and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Solar Valley, Dezhou, China.

New York Times (1981)
Scientific American (2010)
"Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do" - Ronald Reagan, 1981