Monday, May 18, 2009

Solar 2009--someone forgot the hope

I attended the ASES conference in Buffalo, NY last week. The tone was much less exuberant than last year’s conference in San Diego when oil prices were still rising ~$1/day. A lot has improved for the solar industry over the last year—in terms of actual legislation passed, the pace of solar installations in states like California, and the tone of the new administration which has put renewable energy front and center of the economic recovery—but the credit crisis has knocked everyone on the back heel.

The challenge we face is how to build the solar industry fast enough to disrupt the fossil fuel industry and save the planet was well described by Denis Hayes’s keynote address. We have a lot of work to do, and it’s mostly a matter of buckling down and doing it.

To that end, it seems that Solar Thermal (a.k.a. hot water) was more prominently featured than in past conferences. (Plus there was a distinct lack of PV panel manufactures at the exhibit hall, Day4 was the only one from North America.) Given the higher efficiency of solar thermal (50%+ vs 15%+ for PV) and lower cost, it offers a fast payback and I’m happy to see the resurgence. Any industry that uses hot water daily would do well to consider using solar to heat, or pre-heat, their water. Systems are much better engineered than folks that lived through the 80s might remember. Solar thermal is the renewable investment with efficiency type returns (20%+/yr).

Unfortunately the plenary/keynote speaker line up was not as strong as in past years that I’ve attended the conference. The opening talks sounded like corporate infomercials that were a bit light on the info. Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison gave a provocative talk entitled “We [solar] got everything but respect” in which he claimed that solar is already cheaper than new coal plants. Jigar Shah points to the habit of [captured?] regulators raising rates (by up to 18% in some cases) to cover the cost of new coal plants—something they obviously would not have to do if new coal were as cheap as we are led to believe. Hayes’ address as mentioned provided a solid, important outlook, but was overly scolding and gloomy in my view; like “An Inconvenient Truth” without the optimism—see the movie to get the joke.

Thursday’s plenary(?) was a major yawn fest, unless you find NYSERDA and LIPA fascinating--that was if you were awake enough to figure out where they hid the session…not everyone did and I almost envy them. The sole noteworthy tidbit that I got came from LIPA’s talk, was that LIPA plans to install 50MW of solar this year and wants another 50MW next year—although the speaker really buried the lead on this story. A NY utility installing 50-100MW is both significant and positive and it is light years ahead of IL where our big news is a single 10MW solar plant announced a couple weeks ago for the same time frame.

Finally the emerging architecture session which generally provides an inspiring array of futuristic eye-candy, was technically a re-emerging architecture session minus the inspiration and the eye-candy. The gray hairs of the passive solar movement confirmed that the DOE (dept. of energy) has an institutional memory with a 3 year half life. In plain English, they can remember about 10% of what they knew 10 years ago and 1% of what they knew 20 years ago. So the guys that did a lot of work for/with the DOE 30+ years ago, are having to remind the DOE to use the passive solar performance data that the DOE itself collected (but can’t remember) in today’s new whiz-bang DOE passive solar performance databases.

Obviously the gray hairs of passive solar find this a distressing development, and used their hour (after the requisite ½ hour of self congratulatory backslapping and name dropping) to try to educate the audience on their collective wisdom. Unfortunately the session wasn’t even as well organized as I’m making it sound. These guys know what we need to be doing in terms of sustainable architecture and have spent their lives doing it; each has important views and ideas and info about what does or does not work and why…and some of that even came through in the re-emerging architecture session. I hope it was enough, but from the audience questions and comments, I have my doubts.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by some of the excellent talks (content: Yogi Goswami in 2005; inspirational: Van Jones in 2008—come back!) I’ve heard at prior conferences.