The work of activists and researchers, along with shifts in the energy market, may be pushing solar energy toward a tipping point in the United States.
A series of mega-solar projects are being constructed in Arizona and California. The company Brightsource has already begun construction on the 370 MW Ivanpah project. In October, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved an application for construction of the Blythe Solar Power Project, consisting of four solar thermal arrays that will produce 250 MW each. Seven other projects are expected to break ground before the end of the year with a combined capacity of 4,000 MW when completed.
Activists are pressuring the Obama Administration to take leadership on solar policy, and recently scored a symbolic victory that they hope will bring solar more public attention and cachet and lead to policy change.
This fall, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist
organization 350.org, and a group of students from Unity Signs of Life
College traveled down the East Coast with one of the original
solar hot water panels that President Jimmy Carter installed on the White House in 1979. (Reagan removed them in 1986.) Along the way (and online), the group collected 40,000 signatures petitioning the White House to resurrect the panels. The White House initially rebuffed the request. But on October 5, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the White House plans to install photovoltaic panels and a solar hot water heater on its roof.
“The Obama announcement has sparked this campaign to rev up in a number of other places around the world,” says Jamie Henn, communications director with 350.org. On October 10, the day of a Global Work Party coordinated by 350.org, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives also installed a set of solar panels, by hand, on the presidential residence.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has committed to putting solar on the governor’s mansion, and Australians have launched a campaign to pressure Prime Minister Julia Gillard to put solar on the Lodge, her official residence.
Activists believe the White House gesture will also make solar seem more accessible to the average American homeowner. In his announcement, Chu said the White House panels “will show that American solar technology is available, reliable, and ready to install in homes throughout the country.”
Meanwhile, recent technological breakthroughs may makehome solar
power much more affordable. An interdisciplinary team at Western
Washington University (WWU) announced in
September a $970,000 grant from the National Science Foundation
for additional research on a new kind of solar collector. Traditional photovoltaic panels use only the red band of visible light. The WWU team’s collector uses colored polymers to gather light from the whole spectrum. The increased efficiency allows electrical generation on overcast days and will cut the cost of solar panels by as much as 90 percent, according to a WWU press release.
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