Week in Review: After a strong 2012, solar looks to 2013

An PV tracker installation in ArizonaAs 2012 comes to a close it seems that solar and renewables in general, have a good run of it this year, in the U.S. and across the world. For instance, more solar was installed in the U.S. this year than ever before - and the final numbers on that won’t be in until early next year - but a report just over a week ago said that in the U.S. more solar was installed in the third quarter of 2012, than in all of 2011—the previous record-holder. And, even as Christmas and ol’ Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, St. Nick or whatever you want to call the elf of gifts, is crisscrossing the world with gifts, the news about solar hasn’t slowed up. Last week saw a number of new studies and news that shows solar is just continuing to grow stronger in what’s usually been a slow news cycle.

The bigger stories in 2012 have surrounded photovoltaics but solar thermal, which will likely be making itself better known in 2013, has been busy at work and the industry has some advantages over PV. Chief among them is the ability of thermal solar or concentrating solar power (CSP) to store energy as thermal energy. Last week the CSP Alliance issued a report explaining the potential of CSP with thermal storage through materials like molten salts to offer baseload electric generation, which means generation on par with natural gas, coal, hydroelectric and other forms traditional electric generation.

CSP plants also offer a lot of flexibility compared to other solar PV plants. For instance, the technology can be combined with other technologies to boost production at existing power plants and to lower emissions at such plants. As such DOE is offering $20 million in funds to partner solar thermal or CSP systems with existing power plants generating electricity from coal or natural gas.

The further expansion of all types of solar has and continues to be a lack of access to low-cost capital. However, new methods for financing solar at lower costs continue to crop up. Last week the Department of Energy held a Webinar discussing a number of those opportunities, particularly voluntary programs that make it easier to fund solar projects. Experts talked about community choice aggregation, crowdfunding and reverse auctions as ways to fund solar projects.

Its not just the U.S. that’s looking to make solar more affordable, countries around the world are working on it. And one of the world’s sunniest places, Australia is starting to really boost its efforts. To help make sure it happens, the DOE’s SunShot Initiative has partnered with the Australia Solar Institute (ASI) to create the United States-Australia Solar Energy Collaboration (USASEC). Under the partnership Australia’s Minister for Resources and Energy more than $83 million is being offered for collaborative projects between Australian and United States researchers.

Joining the U.S. government in the international push are U.S.-based manufacturers, among them, SunPower. The company, with its market-leading PV modules, recently announced that it closed financing on 33 megawatts of projects in South Africa and it’s working to expand its presence in China, Japan, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. Following the imposition of Japan’s feed-in tariff in July 2012 the market has become a much more significant part of SunPower’s sales, and is expected to comprise 10 percent of the company’s revenue in 2013.

The SunShot Initiative has been busy at home, too. Among its recent awards, was an $11.7 million grant to the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE) to develop plug and play solar power systems for homeowners and DIY-ers. The Massachusetts research center is looking into how it can make solar easier and safer to install for average homeowners as well as helping create standards for solar installations. Such efforts may be the puzzle piece to the widespread adoption of solar. 

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