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Solar Comes Down From the Mountain — And Into the Mainstream

By Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson is Vice President of Knowledge at the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA). He has been a part of the organization’s transition from “solar” to “smart” over the past six years, and in August will depart SEPA for work as an independent consultant. He can be reached at [email protected].

I arrived in the small village high in the foothills of the Sierra de las Minas mountains of eastern Guatemala just as dusk was turning to full night. The year was 1993, and the fruits of a newly completed project of my organization, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International Programs, could be seen in the glow of lights blinking on in homes and over street corners.

Traditionally, NRECA brought electricity to rural communities of developing nations by erecting poles and wires to carry electricity generated at distant power plants. This project was one of a new initiative that instead tapped small-scale renewable sources of electricity installed near or in the community, using micro-hydropower, biopower, wind turbines or, in this case, solar panels.

Bobs Final Blog
Bob Gibson works on his final SEPA blog. (Photo credit: K Kaufmann)

This was my first “up close and personal” experience with solar power, a technology that would come to play a significant role in the next 23 years of my career.

For a village that fell into darkness once the sun set, the power generated during the day from 75-watt photovoltaic (PV) solar panels fixed to roofs and light poles, and then stored in lead acid battery packs, brought new life and productivity to the evening hours. The solar power lit street corners, made adult education classes in the school possible, and brought light into homes with slender fluorescent tubes, as well as providing power for radios, a sewing machine or a small iron.

The change was modest by “first world” standards but quietly transformative for this village of farmers tending plots of vegetables and coffee trees. Along with electric light, solar also generated a new measure of security, learning and economic enterprise.

That evening, one of the village leaders walked with me to an open spot at the edge of the village. Here we could look out over a landscape framed by faint outlines of distant mountain peaks against a starry sky. Cutting through the darkness of the valley below was a string of glowing lights that stretched for miles along a highway, where the lines of the national power company energized villages and towns.

“This is a good start,” said the man, nodding back to his village with its sprinkling of dim light. “But that” — he pointed to the ribbon of light from the power lines in the valley below — “that is what we really need.”

Back in the U.S. at that same time, solar was receiving renewed attention thanks to a Department of Energy-led plan. It was called TEAM-UP — a peppy acronym that stood for Technology Experience to Achieve Markets in Utility Photovoltaics — and its premise was bold enough to catch mainstream media attention.

Here is an excerpt from an article that ran in the October 18, 1993 edition of Time magazine.

“Some of the biggest boosters of solar power are bound to be utility companies, eager for a clean source of electricity that will enable them to produce more power without new billion-dollar plants.

Both as consumers of solar technology and as the promoters of home solar panels, utilities will drive much of the industry’s growth into the next century. ‘Utilities are beginning to realize that they’re going to have to get on the solar bandwagon,’ says S. David Freeman, general manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). ‘If they don’t and rates go up sharply, people are going to buy their own solar panels and pull the plug on the utilities. … Solar is competitive now if you take the long view. And it’s going to be highly competitive by the end of the decade.’”

To term Freeman a maverick utility chief of his day would be an understatement. And the somewhat Pollyannish words of the Time writer that precede the Freeman quote are not likely to have resonated with Freeman’s contemporaries. Solar was not only largely unproven as a utility-grade power source, it was at least five times the cost of conventional generation. A daunting proof of concept job lay ahead, as well as a need for dramatic cost reductions.

But scores of utilities did sign on to participate in TEAM-UP to tackle the challenge. They partnered with fledgling solar providers to test just about every conceivable grid-connected application for PV solar, as well as a number of off-grid uses. The project received Department of Energy cost-sharing support and was managed by the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG), the tiny nonprofit formed in 1992, that eventually became SEPA. I came to work at UPVG in 1996.

One of the things that struck me early on in my tenure at UPVG was a bit of a disconnect in the goals of the TEAM-UP project. A major premise from the outset was that once utilities saw for themselves that solar “worked,” they would become major buyers. In fact, the project started with the aim of spurring a 50-megawatt utility market for PV within the first four years — a goal that did not materialize.

But TEAM-UP did prove that solar was a useful power source for a wide variety of applications. It tested and proved just about every application for solar that has been “discovered” in recent years, from grid infrastructure deferral to customer acceptance of utility-owned solar on their rooftops. It accelerated innovation on the solar side, from the development of new products and processes for PV, to improved inverters and other balance-of-system products. Most importantly, it nurtured a pool of talented people, at utilities and solar companies, who have continued to push solar forward to this day.

By the year 2000, TEAM-UP was winding down and I was about to depart the UPVG for the next stop in my career. I made a presentation to a utility group about TEAM-UP results, highlighting the success of our 100-kilowatt projects, the largest of the systems installed under the program and the closest to what could be termed “utility-scale.”

Afterwards, one of the senior executives in the generation group thanked me for my talk. Then he noted with a kindly but slightly condescending tone, “But Bob, you do realize, that to us 100 kilowatts is almost too small to meter.”

Despite the successes achieved by TEAM-UP, the program never moved the needle on the cost of solar. We believed it was “five years away” from being price competitive when I joined UPVG, and it was still five years away when I left.

Another decade would pass before solar finally begin to fall in price, and another five years for David Freeman’s predictions to come to pass and his words of warning to be fully heeded. The tipping point on cost came as a result of Germany’s Energiewende — which included substantial support for solar, efficiency and other renewables — sustained for decades and eventually leading to a substantial global market where demand had outstripped supply by 2009.

Solar’s dramatic fall in price has led us to the prospect of 10 gigawatts of solar installed on the U.S. grid in 2016 alone. Solar’s growth is giving a boost to a host of other distributed energy technologies and is fundamentally influencing the business of producing and delivering electricity to the end consumer.

But while solar is a major influence on the emergence of a more decentralized and dynamic grid in the U.S., it is in developing countries where its impact may be most profound. In parts of the world where the central station grid is limited, the key to stability, and hopefully prosperity, will be the development of robust microgrids, which can mimic much of the capability of the traditional grid through a suite of clean and distributed technologies.

If NRECA International was starting afresh today in that small village in the Sierra de las Minas, rather than designing a stop-gap service based solely on solar, the solution would likely be to construct a “smart” microgrid. It would provide not only a far more robust solar output, but feature superior battery storage, and some form of energy management that would allow the community to efficiently align consumption with production at a sustainable cost.

And likely the members of the community would not speak wistfully of what was only available miles away down in the valley. The village would itself be the model of a new mainstream.