Painful Truth: Future of solar spreading to the south

The future is murky and hard to see. Until you fly right over it and see it marching past, covering the California desert. 

I dashed down to the States recently to visit my grandmother, uncles and aunts and various cousins, all of whom live under the charming belief that 18 degrees Celsius is “chilly.”

Driving around suburban Orange County for a few days, you notice that a few things are different. More palm trees, wider roads, better drivers, cheaper gas. And you notice the solar panels. They’re not on every house – but they’re on every 10th or 20th in some neighbourhoods. It’s not strange to see a couple in a row with the flat black panels lined up facing south.

I started watching for them. There were a cluster on top of an office building. Passing a hospital, the parking lot was shaded by a vast array of them. 

Then on the flight home, I looked down as we veered inland, and saw what looked like the a photographic negative of a greenhouse complex. Acre upon acre of black glass covered flat, brown land.

As far as I can tell, I was heading over Topaz, a 550 megawatt complex that just finished construction, and is now the largest solar complex in the world, covering 9.5 square miles in San Luis Obispo County. It will supply about 160,000 homes. (For comparison, that’s exactly half the 1,100 megawatts expected from the Site C Dam on the Peace River, if/when that gets built.)

Topaz won’t be the biggest in the world for long, though. It’s about to be passed by the 579 megawatt Solar Star project, also in California.

California gets most of its power now from natural gas – cleaner than burning coal or oil, but still a net contributor to global warming. While there are some environmental downsides to creating solar panels – there’s some toxic gunk that has to be processed after manufacturing – they’re far better in the long term.

Solar is cheap in California for a number of reasons. All that sunshine certainly helps, there are state incentives both pushing utilities to invest in renewable energy, and homeowners can get cash for installing systems. Meanwhile, there’s a 30 per cent federal tax credit for solar systems on top of that.

Some of that is about to change. The state program for home installation has been so popular it’s starting to wind down, and in 2016, the federal tax credit will expire, if no one does anything to extend it.

But that might not matter. Let the tax credits and rebates expire, and solar would no doubt experience a dip in popularity. But even without them, it’s at or near cost-parity with other common methods of power generation. That’s not according to some hippy-dippy green energy lobby, either, that’s according to a report by Deutsche Bank. The bankers and investors are just trying to figure out where the money is, and they think it might be in solar.

Oil is cheap right now, and so is natural gas. But eventually, they’ll be expensive again. Solar is getting cheaper every year, and better. We’ve seen that curve before.

About 20 years ago, solar was like automobiles around 1890 – neat and weird, but neither reliable nor cheap. Right now solar is entering the early days of the Model T phase – increasing ubiquity, decreasing price, steady improvements in quality. 

Here in Canada, we’re behind the curve on this. We have a lot of dams, of course, and we don’t burn much coal. But in about 10 years, I’m guessing that from the Okanagan to Ontario, there’ll be a lot of solar panels being installed.

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