November 14, 2015


Sunshine revolution: the age of solar power (Ed Crooks and Lucy Hornby, 11/05/15, Financial Times)

The world's first solar array was set up on a New York rooftop in 1883 by an American inventor called Charles Fritts. John Perlin, author of Let It Shine, the definitive history of solar power, describes Fritts as one of the 19th century's great "zealous tinkerers", like his contemporaries Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Unlike them, however, Fritts never laid the foundations of a business empire, perhaps because he was too far ahead of his time.

His experiments were carried out just five minutes' walk from where Edison had built the world's first truly commercial coal-fired power plant only a year earlier, and Fritts predicted that solar power would soon be a viable alternative. "We may ere long see the photoelectric plate competing [with coal-fired plants]," he wrote in a scientific journal in 1885. "Ere long" turned out to be optimistic. Fritts's panels used selenium, in which the photovoltaic effect -- the way that photons striking some materials create a current -- is very weak, and there was no way they could compete with the rapidly growing coal-fired power.

It was not until Bell Labs made a breakthrough using silicon in the 1950s that solar power had any practical applications at all, and even then it was viable only for specialised uses such as satellites. Since then, solar panels have made the long, slow journey from cutting-edge technological marvel to humdrum household gadget. The first Telstar satellite in 1962 ran on 14 watts of solar power. Today you can get the same power from a portable set of fold-out panels to charge your iPad on a camping trip, available on Amazon at $39.99.

The phenomenon of the ever-decreasing costs of solar power has been dubbed Swanson's Law, after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower, one of the largest US solar companies. Swanson's Law holds that every time the total cumulative production of solar panels doubles, their cost drops by 20 per cent. Swanson modestly denies any great originality. "It's based on the idea of plotting a learning curve, which is well known in many industries," he says. "The cost always tends to come down as you make more and more of something."

Still, the price of panels has followed that learning curve pretty closely. When Swanson started SunPower in 1985, the idea of solar power as a mass-market product still seemed implausible. "Most people, including the experts, said there is no 'there' there. It just isn't going to happen," he says. "Most people thought that, except for a few brave entrepreneurs."

Over the next two decades, the steady decline in costs meant that widespread adoption of solar power no longer looked quite so ludicrous. Just five years ago, however, it remained an expensive option. While costs were much lower than in the 1970s, or even the 1990s, they were still higher than for coal-fired or gas-fired power. What changed that was China.

In the industrial town of Ningjin about 240 miles south of Beijing there is a long campus of neat white buildings, blue lettering fading into the grey air. The campus is owned by a Chinese company called Jinglong Group and its listed subsidiary JA Solar. Jinglong is one of the world's largest producers of monosilicon, used to make solar panels, and JA was the fifth-largest manufacturer of panels in 2014. Each factory houses a different process in the long chain of manufacturing that turns crushed grey silicon ore into shiny black or blue panels.

Jinglong was founded by Jin Baofang, a former electricity bureau official in Ningjin. Pictures of Jin meeting Chinese leaders adorn each factory. His expression is the same in each: sombre and attentive. "Open and aboveboard personhood, works conscientiously", is his motto, written in cramped characters on the company brochure.

JA Solar was listed on Nasdaq in 2007, during a wave of investment in Chinese solar manufacturing. At that time, Germany was the world's largest market for solar panels, as it was for much of the 2000s, and in 2007 the EU set a target of deriving 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, encouraging governments to set up generous incentives for investment. In the first half of the decade, the world's principal producer of panels was Japan, followed by the EU and then the US. It was clear that there was an opportunity for lower-cost production.

Posted by at November 14, 2015 8:58 AM