The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 25, 1993
In six years,
solar-energy project loses luster
remain. "The bottom line is we have not met expectations."
DAVIS, Calif. - On a sunbaked
plain near Sacramento, where row upon row of black solar cells rise up out
of the farmland like some shimmering high-tech crop, researchers have
discovered a basic truth about solar energy:
The sky giveth. And the sky taketh away.
For the last six years, researchers studying whether solar cells are
the holy grail of electrical utilities have been unable to overcome the
technological and economic obstacles that keep solar energy consigned to
the margins of the nation's energy mix.
"I don't think people understand how difficult it is to take
things out of the laboratory and make them commercial," said Brian K.
Farmer, project manager of the venture, Photovoltaics for Utility Scale
Technical problems have plagued some types of solar cells that are
being tested side by side in the arid Sacramento River delta. Even the
most mundane conditions have been shown to reduce the effectiveness of
photovoltaic cells, the silicon wafers that convert sunlight into
Airborne dust and dirt can reduce output by as much as 15 percent - a
significant loss for conservative utility planners. Heat - the unavoidable
byproduct of sunny summer days - also reduces the efficiency of solar
What's more, the glass-covered panels routinely collect more than
sunlight from the sky. Several have been destroyed by stray bullets from a
nearby firing range, said Paul A. Hutchinson, an engineer at the facility.
More than just bullets fall from the sky. Birds also fly over, and
their deposits on the modules have been "one of our biggest
problems," he said.
All told, the project that began in 1987 to demonstrate that solar
technology might be ready to join the ranks of fossil fuels as a source of
bulk electricity has shown, instead, that a new generation of solar cells
needs to be developed before the nation can hope to harness the sun on a
"The bottom line is we have not met expectations," said Mike
Pulscak, an official in the U.S. Department of Energy's solar division in
Unable to generate dependable power at a competitive price, the two
major project sponsors - the U.S. Department of Energy and Pacific Gas
& Electric Co. - are considering pulling the plug on the $18 million
The support of big utilities such as Pacific Gas is considered crucial
to improving solar's contribution to the nation's energy supply. Wind,
geothermal and solar energy together provide less than three-tenths of 1
percent of the electricity sold by utilities, according to the Energy
Several other large California photovoltaic plants, built in the early
1980s when federal solar tax credits were available, have been dismantled
and their modules sold. Even the more optimistic solar advocates say
utility-scale applications are unlikely before 2010.
Utilities now are reassessing their strategy with an eye toward
installing solar panels in smaller configurations to provide "grid
support" - auxiliary power at vulnerable points in the distribution
Atlantic Electric Co. plans to install a 50-kilowatt solar array to
shore up service at the end of its distribution system in Cape May. The
solar panels - which provide enough power to supply 25 homes - will double
as a rain canopy over a passenger walkway at the Cape May-Lewes ferry.
On Tuesday, Delmarva Power & Light Co. will dedicate a 15-kilowatt
rooftop solar system at its operations center in Newark, Del. The project
will demonstrate that solar power can be stored in batteries for later
use, after the sun sets.
And Pacific Gas & Electric has built a 500-kilowatt addition next
to a substation in Kerman, Calif. The project, which provides
supplementary power during peak demand periods, helped the utility avoid
the cost of building a new transmission line to serve the area.
The grid-support project in California cost about $10,000 a kilowatt
(half of it paid by the federal government). That's five times more
expensive than utilities usually pay for new generating capacity.
"It's a proof-of-concept plant," said project manager Farmer,
who oversees solar projects for Pacific Gas. "We don't really expect
the plant will be cost-effective."
The cost of solar cells has not come down in the last decade as much as
some optimists projected, and the high cost remains an impediment to
It costs 20.6 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity from
photovoltaic cells - four times as much as wind generators and five times
as much as combined-cycle natural-gas generators, says Pacific Gas &
Electric, one of the leading utilities for solar investments.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," said Dick Ningard, national
accounts manager for Solarex Corp., an Amoco subsidiary that operates a
research and photovoltaic manufacturing plant in Newtown, Pa.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Twenty years ago this month, when the Arab oil embargo shocked the
nation, the government began a frantic search for renewable, domestic
energy supplies. Solar power was especially alluring because it was
"This technology is so attractive, it's so elegant," said
Edgar A. DeMeo, the head of solar-power programs for the Electric Power
Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. "It just sits there in the
sun and generates electricity."
Solar advocates hoped that photovoltaic cells could contribute 10
percent of the nation's electrical needs by the turn of the century.
But the federal government's commitment to solar waned in the 1980s as
oil prices fell rather than rising to $40 a barrel, as projected. Congress
funded less than half the $2 billion called for in a 1977 law to develop
alternative sources of energy. Solar tax credits expired in 1988.
Still, photovoltaic cells have gained some commercial acceptance.
Solar cells have gradually moved into markets where conventional power
sources are inconvenient or expensive, such as remote pumping stations,
emergency highway telephone boxes, security lighting and vacation homes
far from power lines.
Solar supporters also hope that a Clinton administration initiative
announced last week to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will also spark new
support for photovoltaic development.
"The markets are booming," said Scott Sklar, the bullish
executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Exports to
developing countries represent 60 percent of the industry's sales, he
Sklar said five photovoltaic producers were expanding or opening new
manufacturing facilities, including Advanced Photovoltaic Systems Inc. of
Princeton, which recently completed a 65,000-square-foot plant in
Experts say the photovoltaic manufacturing process will improve slowly.
"It's going to be a gradual thing, nothing too spectacular,"
said Ningard of Solarex.
The key ingredient to photovoltaic cells is pure silicon, which is
expensive to manufacture. (The silicon in a solar cell reacts with the
photons in sunlight to produce a small trickle of electrons, which is
collected by wires running through the cells. The trickles from hundreds
of cells combine to form a stream of electricity.)
Most photovoltaic panels are made from crystalline cells, which are
produced by a labor-intensive process of forming a block of pure silicon
and then slicing it into thin wafers. The method is inherently expensive,
and the cutting wastes a lot of silicon.
The more promising process, they say, is the production of amorphous
cells - so named because the silicon molecules are jumbled rather than
rigidly structured, as they are in a crystalline cell.
Amorphous cells are cheaper to produce - gaseous silicon is applied to
glass in a layer only a few atoms thick. But they are less efficient,
requiring more surface area to generate the same amount of electricity.
The cost of the cells is only part of the equation. Half the cost of
installing a solar system pays for the frames to point the cells at the
sun and for wires and transformers to convert the energy generated by the
cells into 120-volt household current.
At the Davis facility, where the 400-kilowatt Advanced Photovoltaic
System array alone consumes five acres, the different techniques to
improve efficiency are evident.
Some manufacturers have devised mechanical tracking devices that rotate
the cells so they follow the sun from morning to sunset. Hutchinson, the
engineer, says the devices improve efficiency so long as they do not
malfunction, which they often do.
Other photovoltaic producers have designed mirrors to concentrate the
sunlight on cells, allowing them to produce more electricity from smaller
But perhaps the most telling evidence of the checkered performance of
photovoltaic manufacturers are the three sets of empty frames awaiting a
new generation of cells.
None of the manufacturers was able to deliver the cells on time this
year. "Their contracts were terminated," said Hutchinson.
Some solar advocates say the uncertain future for huge solar generating
stations may not be such a bad thing, because much of the appeal is for
individual electricity users who want to place the generating capacity on
their own rooftops.
"Central stations aren't what we're all about," said Paul D.
Maycock, a Virginia energy consultant and the editor of Photovoltaic News.
"Who needs it?"
Some utilities are already anticipating the day when customers seek
energy independence and are positioning themselves to sell stand-alone
The Idaho Power Corp. is spending $5 million to install photovoltaic
systems for remote customers rather than extending electrical distribution
lines into virgin territory.
"Photovoltaic technology is just like the cellular-phone
industry," said Sklar, the solar industry association. "It says,
'Hey, you don't have to be connected by wire to the system.' "