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October 28, 2009

Solar energy, ready for deployment

Frederic Pouyot

Frederic PouyotThe next decades will see one of the largest technological shifts in the way people use energy, and this shift has already started.

Looking back at history, humanity has already had a number of major transitions when it comes to energy.

We initially relied on the energy of people, made use of animals, wind (sailboats, early wind turbines) and water (water mills). Then we started to use steam to power mechanical engines and boats. We then started to turn that energy into electricity.

For the last century fossil fuels was used for these engines and electrical turbines (wood, then coal then oil). Since the middle of the 20th century, many countries turned to nuclear. None of these transitions ever happened in a clear cut manner, and while some phased out, overlap typically existed.

Every time a technology emerged to the point of taking predominance, it was not because the previous technology had disappeared, but because the overall benefits of the new technology where clear.

Horses did where not replaced by automotives because automotives where less expensive or offered a better payback, but because they had a perceived superior value and overall utility. Same thing with nuclear energy over coal electrical plants, and pretty much everything else in life. We live in houses and not cheap wood cabins for the same reason.

Electricity has been studied by English physician William Gilbert since 1600, in the late 1870s the American Thomas Edison developed and built the first electricity generating plant in New York City.

Solar water heating became popular in North-America in the 1920s. While Solar Photovoltaics was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and by the 1990s, the reality was that costs of solar energy had dropped as predicted, but costs of fossil fuels had also dropped—solar was competing with a falling baseline.

Solar Energy demand has grown consistently by 20-25% per annum over the past 20 years, and this growth has been accelerating in the last few years, with some markets growing at 50% per year, and others showing a growth completely off the chart.

For example, while the total installed capacity in 2007 was less than 6 MW, 2009 should see tens of MW coming online (Optisolar Canada alone has plans for at least 40 MW).

There are a great number of reasons that explain why solar is one of the set of renewable energy technologies that provides a formidable “utility” will continue to show an explosive growth.

First of all, solar is now mature and well understood.

While there will be some incremental improvements with solar technologies, we can expect these improvements to be more on efficiencies of productions and installation and financing than with the intrinsic technologies.

There are now strict norms and standards for solar equipment and certification for installers, and the industry is now easing over the steep part of the learning curve.

People have learned the lessons from the false start of the late seventies for solar water, and Canada is ready to leverage on the intense R&D that has happened over the last 60 years in solar PV, and as manufacturing is ramping up at a dizzying pace worldwide, Canada is ready to receive the solar goods.

Solar is viable in Canada. Canada’s populated areas are blessed with a solar resource that is in fact more abundant than what is available to world leading countries for use of solar PV (Germany) and solar thermal (Austria).

The fact is that solar make technical sense in Canada. As a country with the lowest population density in the world, as one with the most scattered patterns of land use (urban crawl), solar is appropriate.

Solar is the most widely available form of energy in Canada, and is particularly appropriate in a decentralized model of energy production. Unlike with wind energy or hydro power, the resources is everywhere, and while some areas receive a lower radiation, the difference from the worst to the best location is only a 56% increase, whereas it can be 300% for wind.

Solar water heating make more sense in Canada than many other countries, even compared to warmer regions.

While mild climates may be able to use cheaper solar equipment, their need is much less as the water comes out of the ground warmer.

In Canada, a glazed solar panel will produce more usable heat (more kWh of usable heat) which provides a higher justification for solar.

Also, solar water equipment can be used to heat space, which represents at least 2 to 3 times the energy required for domestic water. With the recent advances in cost effective long term heat storage, Canadians can now use effective comb-systems that can heat both domestic water and their homes.

Solar PV technologies actually can outperform in the Canadian climate. While crystalline silicone (c-si) PV works more efficiently in colder environments, new thin film technologies can actually produce up 20% more energy than 2nd generation c-si during the hottest days.

Thin film also has the ability to work in diffuse light, such as on hazy humid or smoggy days which is becoming more and more common in the summer.

Last, when used with a tracker or set to close to a vertical angle, thin film can catch 20 to 50% more sunlight in the winter thanks to reflection from snow. The same can be expected from solar thermal panels installed vertically and (close to the ground or a flat roof) for the main purpose of heating space.

Solar thermal energy already offers air heating at 2 to 5 cents/kWh thermal, water heating at 5 to 10 cents/kWh and in Ontario, especially with the Green Energy Act, solar PV will offer Returns in the 9 to 12% range. What is more, third generation PV is now reaching the market with the promise of low cost and improved efficiencies.

Solar is economically viable. When considered as an investment in the same category as real estate, or when compared to money trusted to banks for retirement, solar actually provides greater economic returns. 

Solar has a utility from a risk management perspective. For building occupants, solar “insures” they can get energy in case of failure of the public energy system. For the governments, solar provides a local source of energy which does not create trade deficit in so far as the fuel does not need to be imported.

After building owners implement energy efficiency, they will find that solar energy is the next logical step to consider. Even if 20 to 50% of the buildings may not have the appropriate space to install solar panels, this leaves a very large market.

In the current economic context, the development of the use of solar energy represents for governments the best bang for the buck to help the economy recover by investing is green infrastructure.

Investing in megaproject if civil engineering such as development of new highways is certainly not an investment that provides better ROI than green energy investments.

While maintaining roads and bridges certainly offers a utility in the sense that it is a matter of public safety, investing in green energy is also a matter of public safety as it move us away from toxic and dangerous fuels (the particulates, GHG and radiations are all a lethal threat to public health).

Unlike with road and bridge repairs, green energy also offers a Return on Investment. While the construction of roads and bridges provides temporary jobs, solar energy provides long term sustainable jobs. Indeed, investment in solar infrastructure creates manufacturing capacity which can find an outlet in Canada initially, but also in a very fast global market.

When compared to nuclear or large scale hydro, solar has a superior utility from a financial, economic, and environmental point of view.

According to CanSIA, solar PV creates between 30 to 185 jobs per MW for small scale projects and the German government cites 15 to 30 jobs per MW for large Utility scale projects.

Solar water heating provides 5 to 9 jobs per MW equivalent. A nuclear facility employs 1 to 2 person per MW[1], natural gas close to 1 job per MW[2]and Large hydro provides job ratios comparable to nuclear and natural gas. Coal power plants provide an average of 0.5 to 0.6 job per MW, with 34% of that only in the power plant operation and the balance in extraction and transport.

So it is clear that when compared to traditional energy production, solar energy is a more labour intensive sector that generates a wider variety of jobs, from construction labourers to high-wage and high-skilled jobs in: research and development; from design to manufacturing; construction and installation small or large or utility scale projects and its operations and maintenance.

Of all renewable energy technologies, only biomass is more labour intensive than Solar.

Germany with a population of 82 million has developed a solar workforce of 30,000 in solar alone.

With a population of 33.6 million and 1.4 million people out of work in early 2009, solar energy can offer the greatest job opportunities to over 10,000 people and grow at a growing rate of 30% per year. At an low value of $40,000 per job, this represents an economic development of 400 Million in direct wages alone and well 1 to 2 billion in total initial annual economic development.

In order to break the last barriers to the massive deployment of solar energy in Canada, SESCI is working to provide municipal financing for solar projects. To find out more, go to www.sesci.ca

[1] http://www.wincanada.org/uploads/filemanager/pdf/2009_WiN-Canada_Conference/Presentations/Primeau_Williams_Full_Paper.pdf

[2] http://www.repp.org/geothermal/geothermal_brief_economics.html

Frederic Pouyot is the President of the Solar Energy Society of Canada Inc., and is the CEO of GPEKS (www.gpeks.com). Frederic has been involved with the Solar Industry since 1984, and has worked solar on projects worldwide. He has written many technical papers for various building and solar organisations

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