Solar power has always dominated the discussion about alternative energy sources, and there’s a reason for that. As far as green energy goes it’s practically a dinosaur, which means the technology is not only existent, but well understood, thoroughly researched, and readily available. Despite that, though, solar has struggled to gain ground in the business-to-consumer marketplace, still considered a niche industry meant to serve an alternative crowd. So is solar power losing its momentum?
The Cost Variable
Solar costs globally have been falling rapidly, and they’re expected to keep going down. Reduction both in processing costs and the cost of polysilicon has driven solar down from around $1.31 a watt in 2011 to around $0.50 a watt in 2014 with leading Chinese solar companies, and around $0.05 a watt in the US, and prices are expected to continue to drop as global solar companies target lower and lower price per watt points.
The problem is that even as the operational prices for solar drop, sales of solar systems are variable. In Pennsylvania, where government aid is expiring, people are less incentivized to make the initial costly transition. California faces obstacles of its own, with the California Public Utilities Commission voting on regulations that increased the fees associated with going solar for residents.
It’s in those fees and subsidies that the larger issue begins to emerge. Analysts predict that the sale of solar systems will start strong in 2016, but fall off toward the end of the year and into the new year as the US lowers its tax credits for the solar shift.
Even as the cost for panels drops, the initial fees are still prohibitive, coming in around $23,000 for a five-kilowatt system in 2014 before tax credits and incentives. If those incentives decrease or expire, solar power has the potential to become prohibitively costly for the average household.
Getting On The Grid
There’s another issue currently holding solar back, and it’s less about the individual and more about infrastructure investment. The current power grid is physically set up to carry consistent levels of energy generation. Solar isn’t the most consistent source of power generation, so any large scale regional or national shifts must first content with the fact the grid infrastructure would need a large overhaul before the widespread adoption of solar energy.
Infrastructure investment doesn’t come cheap, and especially in the US it can be an almost pointless battle. The American Society for Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that $3.6 trillion would be needed simply to get everything to where it needs to be, never mind making massive changes or building new systems. Matters have only gotten worse in the years since, as Congress gridlocks on any issue involving long-term repair with a cost associated with it.
The issue, then, isn’t so much that solar power is losing public momentum as it is political momentum. Even as leaders push for more sustainable energy sources, the necessary support to make solar viable isn’t materializing. Without that support, solar is going to stay a niche product for an alternative market, whether we like it or not.