TWO WAYS TO SLASH SOLAR COSTS
by Ben Daviss
One thing keeping the price of solar energy installations high is “soft costs” – not the price of the hardware or labor, but an installer’s time and trouble navigating the permitting processes, inspections, and connecting renewable energy systems to the local utility company’s grid.
This time-consuming tedium causes many potential solar customers to abandon their plans to go solar. That means wasted time and costs for the installer, who then has to spread those costs to other customers. According to the nonprofit Solar Foundation, these soft costs add as much as $7,000 to a typical solar installation.
But many of the costs and delays could go away with the new “SolarApp” – short for “Solar Automated Permit Processing.”
SolarApp will create an on-line portal that allows a solar installer to enter details about a project and get a speedy, automated approval for most routine projects from any jurisdiction in the U.S.
Clearly, building data from all those permitting and processing agencies is a big task. But there are a lot of hands involved: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Solar Foundation, the Solar Energy Industries Association, and a gaggle of solar companies who have teamed up to get the app working within five years.
At the same time, there’s a breakthrough looming in solar hardware’s future.
Solar panels are dark, so they can absorb a lot of sunlight. But that sunlight makes the panels hot, which hobbles their ability to convert light into electricity. Researchers at Rice University have demonstrated a way to use a layer of carbon nanotubes in solar panels to convert the heat to light. The tubes channel the heat in one direction and gaps between the tubes focus the heat energy into a narrow band, which turns the heat to light.
If the technology can be scaled up affordably, it could lead to solar panels that operate with 80% efficiency, compared to around 20% currently.
TRENDPOST: Solar-generated electricity, already cheaper than grid-sourced power in many parts of the world, will continue to fall in price over the long term as new technologies emerge and regulatory processes become less cumbersome. Lowered costs will add new urgency to the transformation of the utility industry’s conventional business model.
Gaps between carbon nanotubes focus heat like a funnel and turn it into light that solar panels can absorb and make electricity.
JOBS TREND: CLEAN TECH
According to numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, a solar panel installer is the most sought-after worker in eight states. In Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas, wind turbine technicians lead the demand. Only two states – Wyoming and Kansas – place mining and petroleum workers at the head of the line.
These fast-rising green jobs pay a national average of about $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
The story is the same in the heart of coal country: statisticians, not coal diggers, are the most in-demand workers in Kentucky, and West Virginia wants nuclear medicine technologists more than any other kind of employee.
TRNEDPOST: The U.S. education system is beginning to reorient itself from the idea that advanced education just means college. High schools are opening robust apprenticeship programs and paths of study that prepare students to enter sophisticated technical jobs as soon as they graduate. Manufacturing companies are offering new hires advanced training in return for a commitment of a certain number of years on the factory floor, while well-paid jobs are closed to high-school graduates who lack further training or education.
Demand for technical jobs that require advanced training but not a college degree will continue to outstrip supply for several more years.