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Solar is powering more vehicles. Americans have reduced their use of petroleum 5 percent this year. So far, petroleum reduction is the result of fewer miles traveled solo as people cut travel to deal with high gas prices and a slowing economy. At the margin, however, solar power is replacing oil.

There are now 40,000 electric vehicles in use in the United States. They are primarily the 25 mile per hour light electric vehicles. Fleets are starting to use heavy electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids, that formerly required copious gallons of diesel and gasoline. In 2010, consumers will start buying freeway speed electric vehicles.

The U.S. Marine Corp at Camp Pendleton, during my last visit, showed me an 8-station solar car port that they use to charge their 320 light-electric vehicles. Petroleum fuel is a multi-billion dollar part of the U.S. Defense budget. Once the solar panels are installed, however, the sunlight is free. Solar is increasingly also used by the Marines and Army for stationary power in the U.S. and Iraq, reducing the need for petroleum in the form of diesel and JP8 jet fuel for running gen sets to air condition tents and buildings.

Every 44 minutes, sufficient energy from the sun strikes the Earth to provide the entire world's energy requirements for one year, including the energy needed to move vehicles. Solar power grows 40 percent per year, as we become increasingly efficient at turning sunlight into electricity and heat.

Most importantly, with continued innovation and larger scale manufacturing, the price of solar keeps dropping. There is enthusiasm for advancements in photovoltaics [PV] and for large-scale concentrating solar power [CSP]. As I researched and wrote this article at the Solar Power 2008 Conference, last week, the evidence of growth was everywhere. 17,000 from 92 countries attended the conference in San Diego, California. 425 companies exhibited, with 450 more turned away due to lack of convention floor space.

8 GW of solar power are now installed. Deutsche Bank forecasts that the photovoltaic market will grow from $13 billion in 2006 to $30 billion in 2010. Polysilicon supply is expected to triple by 2010. New technology continues to deliver more electricity output with less silicon. These technologies include thin film, high efficiency PV, organic, concentrating PV and balance of system improvements.

For those interested in transportation, one notable area of growth is solar covered parking structures – a cool solution for a planet that is getting hotter.

When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the Solar Power International conference, he highlighted Applied Material's (NASDAQ:AMAT) 2 MW solar power that also shades its parking lot. The vast solar shading is designed to efficiently capture energy using SunPower 19% efficient panels implemented horizontally with a system that rotates the panels to track the sunlight.

Envision Solar specializes in solar parking structures. Designed by architects, Envision uses biomimicry to have parking structures that suggest groves of trees. NREL in Colorado uses an Envision solar carport with a charging station for two vehicles including its plug-in hybrid and EV. Other organizations have installed Envison solar parking structures with the support poles pre-engineered with wiring for future charging or integration of nighttime energy-efficient lighting. These organizations include the University of California San Diego and major solar panel maker Kyocera.

New Jersey Transit is preparing for a future where parked cars can be charged with sunlight while people use public transportation. Premier Power Renewable Energy recently completed the first of two 201kW solar canopies, on the rooftops of two large six-story parking garages at the new Trenton AMTRAK Transit center. Each project includes more than 600 solar panels. The solar systems will eliminate approximately 141 tons of CO2 emissions annually.

The New Jersey parking structures are also equipped with 110v charging stations for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles [PHEVs] and Electric Vehicles [EVs]. Participating in the October 14 ribbon cutting was the Mid-Atlantic Grid Interactive Cars (MAGIC) consortium, which includes the University of Delaware, Pepco Holdings, Inc., PJM Interconnect, Comverge, AC Propulsion and the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, created to further develop, test and demonstrate Vehicle-to-Grid technology.

At Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), part of its 1.6 MW solar PV installation is a solar carport structure that includes charging stations for Google’s plug-in hybrid converted Toyota Priuses and Ford Escapes.

The conference included many lively debates about whether the financial crisis would stop solar’s growth in 2009. Large projects usually require millions for project financing. Allowing customers to pay by the kilowatt with power purchase agreements requires long-term financing. Illiquidity will surely slow growth.

In most U.S. states, however, electric utilities are required by law to expand the percentage of power that is delivered with renewables. In California, for example, the renewable portfolio must be 20 percent by 2010. Pacific Gas and Electric is installing 800 MW of utility scale solar PV to meet part of that. Arizona Public Service has contracted with Abengoa (OTCPK:ABGOF) to install 280 MW of concentrating solar thermal that includes molten salt towers to store six hours energy for delivery during peak hours.

Utilities have deep pockets and these volume projects are lowering costs. With illiquidity in other sectors, utilizes will increasingly drive centralized solar. In areas with positive regulatory environments and with robust grids, utilities will also encourage decentralized solar PV as part of their mix.

United States power utilities spend $70 billion annually for new power plants and transmission, plus added billions for coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel. For $26 to $33 billion per year investment, ten percent of United States electricity can be from solar by 2025, details the Utility Solar Assessment Study, produced by clean-tech research firm Clean Edge.

By 2050 solar power could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions. In their Scientific American article, Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis detail the scenario. A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S. electricity by 2050. This quantity includes enough to supply all the electricity consumed by 344 million plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The price tag for the transition would be $400 billion, but this could be spread over a number of years. Should this seem too expensive, consider the alternatives. This is a fraction of what the U.S. has spent for the war in Iraq.

In the final keynote of the Solar Power International conference, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell [D-WA] explained that both Republicans and Democrats ultimately supported an 8-year extension of solar and other renewable investment tax credits in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. This bill also included $7,500 tax credits for the purchase of new plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Senator Cantwell also strongly supports United States investment in a smart and robust grid, and in bringing high-voltage lines from major sources of renewable energy to major markets.

The transition to clean energy is increasingly recognized as an excellent investment. Due to rapid cost reduction, solar is a growing part of the solution that includes electric vehicles, energy efficiency, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and other renewable sources. Compared to business as usual with oil and coal, renewable energy is downright cheap. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2030, $5.4 trillion must be invested to increase global oil production.


John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and writes about cleantech and renewable energy. He has a modest stock holdings in Abengoa and Q-Cells (QCLSF.PK).

Source: Solar Energy Powers More Vehicles as Gasoline Use Drops