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What Is Holding The Solar Boom Back?

In 1975, Ford-era energy expert and policymaker Robert C. Seamans declared that solar power could likely represent a quarter of the United States’ energy production by 2020, while wind power would never represent more than 1% of the nation’s energy mix. Instead, solar power has never cracked 3% of the United States energy mix, while wind power has gone on to reach about 8% in the past year. In general, the United States lags far behind other Western developed countries when it comes to renewable energy production and adoption, but the lack of growth from solar is particularly surprising compared to the high hopes that experts had for photovoltaics in the not-so-distant past. 

According to a recent article from the New York Times’ “Hindsight” series, the reason that renewables, and solar in particular, have seen a relative failure to launch in the United States is an uneven history of governmental support. The lesson, writer Lois Parshley argues, is “Renewable technology benefits from early, consistent government support.” In the United States, this support has waxed and waned over the years. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof. Ronald Reagan removed them – and cut the Carter administration’s renewable energy research budget by 85 percent and fired most of the federally employed renewable energy scientists, ultimately pivoting to nuclear instead. While this anecdote of two isolated administrations doesn’t illustrate the complex energy policy movements of a nation, it's illustrative of a greater trend of federal wishy-washiness when it comes to putting the kind of money and stolid support behind nascent green energies that they need to become competitive on the market.

Since new technologies often have relatively high barriers to entry and take years, if not decades, to pay off, early research phases often need government funding if they ever have any hope of getting off the ground. We are finally at a point where solar and wind have become cost-competitive with fossil fuels thanks to early investment from countries such as Germany and Japan, more widespread adoption around the world, better and more efficient technologies, and a global industrial learning curve. Over the last decade alone, solar energy prices have plummeted by a jaw-dropping 89 percent. So why is wind king while solar remains unable to establish more than a sliver of the overall national energy mix?

It’s still relatively young, and support for solar has only very recently ramped up in the United States. It’s been too little, too late to live up to expectations for PV performance. “And despite plummeting renewable costs, U.S. energy policies remain fragmented, with no federal renewable portfolio standards, which would require that a certain amount of electricity come from renewable energy,” writes the Times. Despite this, the outlook for both wind and solar is positive as the United States finally starts to fall in line with global climate change targets and imperatives. 

President Biden has said that he intends to put the United States on track to have a completely clean-powered grid within the next 50 years, and wants to slash the cost of solar energy by another 60% over the next decade. These are extremely lofty goals, however, considering that the United States energy grid is woefully outdated and unprepared for that transition, and many experts believe that the era of constantly falling renewable energy prices is nearing an end. What’s more, if history has taught us anything, it’s to expect that the next administration will almost certainly not see eye to eye with its predecessor, putting any long-term goals at risk. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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