I started my first business in the obscure solar electric installation field in 1993. Over the years, I have witnessed the gradual decrease in the price of pure silicon, the power source that is the heart of the solar panel.
I waited for the cost of a kilowatt hour of solar-generated electricity to edge low enough to compete with heavily subsidized, non-renewable utility power. The decline slowed, stopped, and then reversed around 2002 as the worldwide demand for solar modules began to skyrocket. Our domestic solar PV (photovoltaic) industry was quick to blame the surge on growing demand in Germany, which had instituted an aggressive national program designed to reduce its massive appetite for coal-generated electricity and replace it with solar and wind energy.
Then China came into the picture, an investor-rich nation also intent on reducing its deadly dependence on coal for electricity. Two nations with the same goal but vastly different strategies. German solar companies began buying up every available PV-related business they could find, while China started building their solar production infrastructure from scratch. Each nation was increasing its domestic investment in clean, renewable energy by 20 percent to 30 percent per year. The predictable effect was a worldwide shortage, and price spike, in semi-conductor-grade silicon wafers.
Then there’s the United States. At a distant third behind Japan and Germany, and just barely ahead of Spain in total PV production and installation, the U.S. should still be leading the world in both categories. The photovoltaic cell was developed and patented here in the mid- 1950s, giving us an untouchable lead in production for decades – until a handful of electric utilities became aware of the potential of solar power. The oil embargo of the ’70s forced a panicky Congress to require utilities to evaluate and consider solar and wind as alternative sources of electric power.
Unfortunately for all Americans since, the utilities insisted on “helping” Congress write the language of these requirements. The result: rules that assigned virtually no value to those renewable energy assets, namely free fuel-generating non-polluting power. Only the cost per kilowatt-hour mattered to Congress. It also assures that as long as the costs of coal, natural gas, and nuclear generating plants are subsidized heavily enough by the taxpayers, and the development of a solar PV industry in the U.S. is not, traditional fuels will always appear cheaper.
The 2007 Texas Legislature had a chance to make a difference in the state with some of the highest electric rates in the nation. A bill creating the “Texas Solar Energy Rebate Program,” similar to 18 other states’ programs, would have established a statewide, one-time rebate offsetting almost half of the cost of a residential solar electric installation. The cost would have been modest – 50 cents per thousand kilowatt-hours per household. However, it died in committee, just as most pro-renewable energy legislation has in past sessions. That brings me to what I really wanted to talk about: Over the years, I have had a fair number of my editorial replies published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and elsewhere, mostly on topics such as clean air, renewable energy, Joe Barton, concrete plants, and TXU. Now anyone in the advertising industry understands the influence that advertising dollars have over the print, television, and radio media.
When I suggested that TXU’s pumped-up ad spending was affecting the Star-Telegram’s coverage of renewable energy legislation, a veteran reporter there laughed it off. The reporter also told me that TXU had almost 120 full-time paid lobbyists at the state capitol this session – double what they had when I visited the capitol earlier this year with several dozen others from the renewable energy industry to push for favorable legislation. So I related to him the experience I had five years ago, while representing a nonprofit renewable energy group applying for donated booth space at Mayfest.
TXU was an underwriter and, as I was informed by an organizing committee member, TXU attempted to block our nonprofit’s access. The attempt was overruled by others who better understood the spirit of the event and the educational value of our presence. Thus our group was invited back over the next four years to promote solar and wind energy to as many as would listen. I hope that will help folks understand why most North Texans won’t see lower electric rates any time soon, if ever, and why there will be no significant legislation that will rein in TXU and its sociopathic rampage to generate profits only on its own terms.
And why you will find that generating your own clean electric power from free and abundant sunlight will, for the near future, still be just a bit more expensive than electricity from coal-burners. Jim Duncan is the owner of North Texas Renewable Energy, Inc.