We were invited to the Swiss Embassy last evening to hear a panel discussion, Making Solar Energy Competitive: Swiss and American Perspectives. An over capacity crowd attended the lively and insightful discussion. The venue of the Swiss embassy was no mistake as Ambassador Ziswiler pointed out, that Switzerland has been a leader in renewable energy in general and in solar energy in particular. Switzerland generates about 60% of its power from hydroelectric electricity, and is the most greenhouse gas efficient economy in the developed world, according to the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. As pointed out by Patrick Hofer-Noser of 3S Industries AG, one of the other panelists, the US and Switzerland were leaders in solar energy applications n the 1990s until they surrendered their positions to other countries, particularly the Germans.
The Ambassador reported with some pride that a Swiss group aims to circumnavigate the world in a solar electric boat in 2011. Another Swiss group recently unveiled a prototype solar powered plane to fly around the world in 2012. Clearly, the Swiss are envisioning ways to push the envelope of technology to garner the vast unlimited resources of the sun.
The moderator, Matthew Wald of the New York Times commented on many countries “rushing toward renewable energy” but it is not competitive in the marketplace unless “you place a value on carbon.” He pointed out that you have solar energy thriving only where there is a carve-out for solar energy. He also described some of the major shortcomings of solar, talking about how a solar field can shut down in 90 seconds when there is cloud cover. Solar energy is the quickest evolving, and as Wald pointed out, “there is no finish line.”
Christopher O’Brien of Oerlikon Solar, a Swiss company that manufactures equipment for the mass production of thin film silicon solar modules, picked up on this refrain, talking about the “interesting crossroads” in the industry today. And although there is a $30 billion worldwide industry, there is a disconnect between the popular support for solar and the almost infinitesimal deployment of solar energy throughout the world. Oerlikon Solar currently has 600 mW worth of signed contracts for its proprietary micromorphous technology, which is 50% more efficient than traditional thin film technology. O’Brien announced that Oerlikon Solar has been selected as the preferred equipment partner on a plan to convert the idle Wixom Ford Motor plant in Michigan into a solar panel production facility. Oerlikon’s goal is to bring down the cost of thin film, which was $1.50/watt in 2007, to $.70 in 2010—most of the savings coming from material costs.
Ken Zweibel, the director at George Washington University Solar Institute, commented that we are “turning the corner in cost competitiveness.” The Chinese government has recently invested $6 billion into its solar industry. Zweibel predicted that the cost of PV systems, which were $4/watt in 2008, would come down to $3-$3.50 in 2009, falling to $2.50/watt in 2015—which would make California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Vermont competitive, and $2.00/watt in 2020—which would make the entire Southwest competitive. Zweibel said that the major barrier to solar is that there is “no social commitment” to the solar energy, and for us to release the power of solar energy, we first need “to get it.”