Solar power led all generation sources in terms of added generation capacity in 2020, with the U.S. adding a record 19.2 GW of capacity last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The SEIA said that was a 43% jump from 2019, with utility-scale installations experiencing a 65% increase last year compared to the prior year.
The group said U.S. installations of solar power are expected to quadruple from current levels by 2030. And expansion in the solar sector is widespread, with analysts predicting industry growth of 20% or more in several countries, including China, India, the Middle East, and Latin America, across 2021.
Miriam Tuerk, CEO and co-founder of Clear Blue Technologies, an Ontario, Canada-based energy technology company focused on management and servicing of off-grid systems, recently provided POWER with her insight into the solar sector, with a look at some of the challenges facing the industry, from policy and regulation to supply chain issues. The solar industry is experiencing dramatic growth in Canada as well; as an example, online retail giant Amazon in April announced its first renewable energy investment in Canada will be with a power purchase agreement with a solar farm near Calgary, Alberta.
Clear Blue recently reached a milestone in its operations, with 10 billion messages exchanged between its smart off-grid systems in the field and its Illumience online platform. The company says those messages “provide critical data on system status, alarms, performance, and critical operational data for power management, load and configuration settings, charging control, and more.” Clear Blue’s Illumient solar lights are installed in a variety of industries; the company in March said it would provide solar lights to illuminate safety switches in a Conrail-operated switchyard in Greenwich County, New Jersey. Tuerk at the time noted her company’s “proven track record in providing reliable, low-cost smart off-grid power to critical infrastructure.”
The Biden administration’s focus on infrastructure could contribute to solar growth with applications such as lighting, beyond the expected increase in both utility-scale and residential solar power installations across the U.S.
POWER: How will the Biden administration’s policies impact the solar power sector?
Tuerk: The Biden administration will impact solar power in two ways. First, through a green agenda and commitments to the reduction in greenhouse gases. President Biden has set a goal to have a 50% reduction in emissions from the 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution in 2030. Solar will have a major role to play in this.
Second, this push toward renewables and reducing emissions isn’t just happening in the U.S. but rather globally. For example, many countries agreed to reduce their emissions significantly after President Biden’s recent global climate summit.
POWER: Is there thinking within the industry that solar projects need to move quickly to be developed and deployed, to avoid issues with policy changes that could come after the 2022 and/or 2024 elections?
Tuerk: Not that I am seeing, no. There is hope that we will continue to see a pro-environment government in the U.S. and that there is much change in other countries (Canada, for example) where former more conservative parties that maybe at one point didn’t believe in climate change, now recognize that climate policy is imperative.
POWER: How much have pandemic-related supply chain disruptions impacted the sector?
Tuerk: I’ve seen a significant impact. Green energy and cleantech, which includes solar technology, isn’t just about silicon as many believe it to be. It’s about the power electronics that work alongside it and the energy storage that is needed. All of these items, including but not limited to commodity lithium, microprocessors, etc. have been impacted by shipping, logistics delays, increased costs and a shortage of supply.
POWER: How could moves against China (the top global equipment supplier) impact the growth of solar in both the near-term and longer-term?
Tuerk: The anti-dumping Chinese solar situation happened many years ago in multiple jurisdictions. Numerous countries see cleantech as a growth industry that will create many jobs, however, given that Covid-19 triggered a lot of global government spend on jobs within the cleantech sector, the moment of the industry away from China should accelerate. I believe that everyone now understands that local and diversified global sources are key to having a robust business.
POWER: Are there technology advancements that could have a significant impact on the sector in the next five years?
Tuerk: Absolutely. There are many including nuclear power and energy storage technologies that will have a significant impact on the solar sector in the next five years. However, arguably the most exciting and underestimated technological advancement is in Smart and IoT capabilities, to help support the solar sector. Utilizing the cloud, AI and big data will enable solar to have the most impact around the globe. In fact, these tools will allow next-generation alternatives to the current grid we currently use, which simply isn’t viable any longer. Micro, nano and pico-grids will offer a diverse off-grid model, helping to revolutionize the power industry in the same way that going wireless once revolutionized the telecom industry.
POWER: Are there concerns within the industry about the carbon footprint of solar equipment manufacturing and transport? If so, how does the industry plan to address those concerns?
Tuerk: That’s an excellent question and I believe this will be an important topic of conversation over the next five years. We have been so focused on the low-hanging fruit of the big coal and oil industries that we haven’t yet tracked some of the other major factors that are impacting climate change. Construction, manufacturing and big infrastructure have huge impacts on our carbon footprint and the manufacturing and transport of solar equipment are no different.
Personally, I shudder every time I drive past a massive farm field that has been converted into a solar field. The thought of putting solar panels in the middle of a field and then investing in carbon-heavy transmission and disruption is something that I think is unacceptable. However, because the industry is driven by power utilities that had generation, transmission and distribution divisions, we first started with solar generation centrally and have continued with big transmission and distribution, which is the largest cost of power and leaves a large carbon footprint.
A change needs to be made to this process and I am hopeful we will see that change accelerate over the next five years.
POWER: Many of the jobs associated with solar power come during construction/installation. Are there ways or plans to make jobs within the sector more permanent?
Tuerk: Another great question. This is where the smart tools and electronics, cloud, big data and AI come into play. Using these tools will both allow employees to optimize solar power while also creating permanent, high-paying jobs for the industry.
Investment in these areas will create more jobs, not just the temporary construction jobs, but also across the technology sectors for engineers, and will allow for local skill development across the globe. It’s not just about solar power, but also the “social” component of ESG.
POWER: Is the industry prepared to address social justice concerns when it comes to jobs, management diversity, locational (siting) impacts, etc.?
Tuerk: Absolutely. I am a female CEO in a very male-dominated field and yet, especially in the solar industry, I’ve had a chance to grow and learn while supporting other females in the space. Solar power isn’t just about new technology, it’s about a way to help change and save the world and in order for that to be successful, the industry will need (and is well on its way) diverse voices, ideas and people.
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).