In a previous post, I made a modest proposal: Let’s embrace 2012, the year of Mayan end times and zombie apocalypse, with astonished optimism. This can be a little tricky to do, especially in an always-on, ubiquitous media culture addicted to bad news.
Here’s a case in point: the solar industry. The little cleantech business that always seemed to be just a short hop away from conquering the mainstream, and then exploded over the last five years to do just that, and now seems, from the mainstream media’s point of view, headed back to the margins again.
Two news items from late 2011 sum up the state of affairs tidily:
1) A Bloomberg story from Dec. 21 about a decision made by oil giant BP to shutter its solar division after 40 years in the business. “Europe’s second-largest oil company,” the story read, “will wind down the unit over several months because it has become unprofitable.” The item was blogged and tweeted far and wide, more often than not under the headline “BP Deems Solar Unprofitable, Exiting Business After 40 Years.”
2) Reuters, Dec. 14: “German solar firms go from boom to bust.” The story explains how a reduced feed-in tariff for solar power in Germany has combined with a market flooded with cheap Chinese panels to lead to major cutbacks and even a bankruptcy or two in Germany’s pacesetting solar sector.
So there you have it: not even the massive support of the world’s largest export economy and one of the world’s largest oil companies could make solar a mainstream business, it would seem. After a couple of head-spinning years of growth, the fundamentals just weren’t there. Solar – long hoped to be the very foundation of a clean, green 21st-century society – is over.
But hold on a sec here.
Let’s click through those BP-story reposts to get to the original Bloomberg story. Here’s Bloomberg’s own headline: "BP Solar Business Exit Counters Trend by Google, Buffett, Total.” And here’s the key pullquote from an industry analyst: “Two of the biggest oil companies have taken the opposite approaches. The move toward alternative energy continues to be a well-recognized megatrend.” So it turns out that BP is getting out of the business because it isn’t profitable for BP, not because the industry’s fundamentals are too weak to support new investment.
This is Mayan deathcult thinking, cleantech style: faced with news that a tired old oil company’s afterthought solar division is finally being shuttered in the face of much more robust competition from upstarts and the old guard alike, cleantech bloggers across the intertubes ran with a headline that makes it sound like the whole industry’s tanking.
So let’s parse the Reuters story a little more closely and see if it suffers from the same kind of solar Schadenfreude. The fourth paragraph of the story is particularly gloomy: “A decision by the German government earlier this year to phase out nuclear energy has done little to reignite the sector. The resulting power gap is likely to be filled by coal and gas rather than solar and wind energy.” So much for Germany’s much-vaunted cleantech revolution, then, right?
But wait just a minute. Notice there’s no attribution to this assertion. No data, either. The resulting power gap is likely to be filled by coal and gas rather than solar and wind energy? As the interweb’s beloved snowy owl likes to say, O RLY?
Well, for one thing, I’ve reported firsthand on the fact that the German offshore wind sector is growing as fast as humanly possible to fuel the largest wind boom the North Sea’s ever seen. And I did a little Googling, and I soon discovered that in 2011 – a year during which Germany’s solar sector failed, Reuters tells us, to “reignite” – the German grid welcomed 5.9 gigawatts (GW) of new photovoltaic (PV) electricity. Now, it’s true this is 20 percent less than the country’s 2010 total, and Germany ceded the global top spot to (much sunnier) Italy, which added 6.8 GW of solar in 2011. But let’s put those numbers in perspective. The German total is still more solar PV than existed everywhere on earth in 2005; the Italian total – which involved a great many German solar firms and German-made panels – is about the same amount as existed everywhere on earth in 2006.
So then: in this “bust” year for German solar, it played a lead role in adding more than two 2005 planets’ worth of PV production to the global grid in just two nations. Some bust. A more accurate Reuters headline might have read something like “Overheated German solar business cools off a bit as rest of world catches up.”
I dug a little deeper, and I quickly found another news item from December, which noted that there’d been a new breakthrough at the University of Texas that promised to double the efficiency of solar panels. A link embedded in that very news item took me to a study at my own alma mater, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, which indicated that energy analysts habitually overstate the cost of solar power. “Depending on the location,” the study concluded, “the cost of solar PV has already dropped below that of conventional sources.”
This, then, is the real story of solar power at the dawn of 2012: it’s never been more viable, never more mainstream, never closer to true ubiquity. It competes on its own merits in some jurisdictions and the Chinese government has subsidized its manufacture so massively that it’s crowding out a couple of panel producers in cloudy northern Germany. Oh, and as an industry, it no longer needs the charity of the world’s oil giants to carve out a space for itself in the marketplace.
In other words: No dark-sky zombie apocalypse. No Mayan-style Götterdämmerung for Germany’s solar business. The forecast has never been brighter.
So welcome, once again, to 2012, the first year of your brightest possible future. Be astonished, embrace your inner optimist. See how easy it is?
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