The State of Solar Energy

John Perlin Chats About Photovoltaics Past, Present, and Future

Rooftop solar collectors at the Chumash reservation.
Paul Wellman

Talking with John Perlin is a little like chatting with an encyclopedia. His knowledge of the history of the solar power industry runs deep, and he drops dates and names like fruit falling from a tree.

Most recently, the oil-rich Koch brothers’ attempts to stifle home-based solar installations ​— ​which can make our electricity meters run backward ​— ​have him concerned politicians will listen to the arguments of their lobbying group, ALEC, which stands for the innocuous-sounding American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is working with state legislatures to end net metering, arguing that solar-power homeowners selling excess electricity back to the grid is bad for business. Instead, ALEC is saying that those “freeriders,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, should instead be paying $50-$100 in monthly fees, at the very least.

<b>LETTING IT SHINE:</b> An enthusiastic proponent of solar energy as well as a noted historian on the subject, John Perlin has fostered large-scale photovoltaic projects at UCSB and taken his message on the road to national conferences.
Paul Wellman (file)

Perlin recently spoke at the Intersolar North America conference (keynote delivered by Governor Jerry Brown) to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Bell Labs’ invention of the modern photovoltaic, or solar, module. We caught up with Perlin, author of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy, before he headed to another solar conference in Aspen, this one featuring former president Jimmy Carter.

You’re headed to Aspen for American Renewable Energy (ARE) Day. Is Colorado where solar is most active? Actually, California and New Jersey lead the United States in the amount of solar installations. ARE Day brings together the leaders in renewable energy to exchange ideas with each other, as well as anyone interested in the subject. As this will be my first time at the conference, I really don’t know what to expect, but serendipity has always been my best friend.

Can you tell us about ALEC and how it’s undermining solar? Does ALEC sponsor legislation in California? ALEC is a right-wing lobbying group that has spent, in the last few years, millions of dollars trying to end renewable-energy mandates and net metering and anything else they can do to impede through policy the ascendancy of solar and wind. The group has become especially active in state legislatures since wind and solar have become so successful. As far as California goes, ALEC has avoided these issues in our state.

Given that it’s taken 60 years for solar to reach its current scale, how long do you think large-scale power storage will take to materialize? Ironically, the military and the oil industry have been photovoltaic’s strongest supporters. It’s been Congress and various presidential administrations that have been the impediments. With solar growing so fast, storage will happen quite rapidly, as there’s plenty of money to be made. Solar panels plus storage is the utilities’ greatest nightmare. Who will need them then?

Tesla Motors is committed to building a mega-battery factor in the near future. They also are in partnership with Panasonic, the largest manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries, and Tesla Motors has a close relationship with Solar City, the largest installer of rooftop photovoltaic systems, so it’s going to happen sooner than later.

The real question is, what type of battery? Already the larger companies ​— ​SolarCity and SunPower ​— ​are combining batteries with storage in certain cases. Another possibility could be solar-powered fuel cells.

SunPower has some breaking news. It has an agreement with Audi, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Ford for deals on home solar-power installations with the purchase of plug-in vehicles, and also for battery storage for 4-6 hours of electricity use.

Most of us understand the carbon equation by now, but few of us are able to do much about it. You made a movie with Walter Kohn and Alan Heeger, Nobel laureates with the UCSB physics program, called The Power of the Sun in 2003. Did it help spur solar projects on campus? The movie played to an overflow audience at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on November 29, 2005. That inspired Student Affairs to implement solar on their buildings, but the various campus bureaucracies needed for approval of construction projects impeded their efforts. I helped them break through the barriers set up by the solar-phobic opponents, as well as spec the solar technologies needed to make sure the university was getting the best solar equipment on the market. We wanted to show the many skeptics that energy efficiency combined with renewables make a potent pair. With the help of Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Young, Student Affairs Financial Analyst Bill McTague, and Gary Jurich, assistant director of athletics, our dedicated team broke through the red tape to get the large photovoltaic array ​— ​about 150 kilowatts atop the Recreation Center ​— ​on campus.

The installation worked better than expected, turning critics into advocates on the campus. Our most vociferous opponents became our greatest supporters. Our success also inspired a corps of UCSB undergraduates to present a referendum to fund additional solar projects on the campus. The largest majority ever mustered passed the proposal. With the new money in hand, we are now in the process of building an even larger installation ​— ​400 kilowatts ​— ​to cover a campus parking lot.

The student effort also inspired Southern California Edison to team with Student Affairs to introduce energy-saving equipment in combination with the already installed solar unit at the Recreation Center. The two technologies working in tandem show the true power of energy efficiency and renewables to make a building like the Rec Center totally autonomous. It’s a showcase for what the aggregated power of energy efficiency and solar, building by building, can achieve.

Transmission-line energy losses are estimated to be 6 percent. What do you think about large-scale installations like Cuyama’s? Large-scale photovoltaic projects have their place in combating climate change, but they also have many drawbacks from transmission lines, such as impacts on wildlife. Because the technology is modular, every house can become its own power plant. Rooftops make the ideal location, as that’s where the electricity is needed, and there are plenty of empty rooftops the last time I looked. And you are going to see much more photovoltaic rooftop activity at UCSB and the other UC campuses now that UC President Janet Napolitano has mandated that all the campuses must be carbon-neutral by 2025.

Where do you see alternative energy and/or solar five or 10 years from now? In five or 10 years from now, the term “alternative energy” might be used for coal and nuclear. Perhaps. Then utility transmission lines might be considered part of a quaint past, just as those raised on computers regard the typewriter.


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