9 July 2015


“What if…?”: Solar Grammar 101 and the Future Perfect

Author: William P. Hirshman

Oil is an “is”. Coal is an “is”. Nuclear is an “is”.

But is solar an “is”? Not yet.

Despite sometimes rosy statistical analyses of what solar is now and will be, the overriding “to be” verb form for solar should be the grammatical conditionals of “should”, “could” and “might”. As much as solar believers would like to believe that solar is destined to take over the energy-generating landscape, its current “future” resides in the land of “if”, not “when”.

Behind the face of “is”

Those involved in the production and installation sides of the technology quite understandably put on confident “is” faces, citing stats and studies to heighten hopes, fend off fears and perk up perceptions.

But solar observers should know better. During its several-decade past as a photovoltaic technology, grid-connected solar has had to survive the waves of up-and-down markets, the feasts and famines of profits, the good times of government subsidies and the realities of retroactive cuts.

“Throughout its history,” writes Paula Mints, the founder of SPV Market Research, in a June 30Renewable Energy World article on what she calls the technology’s behavioral economics, “[solar] has interacted within a context of here-one-day-gone-the-next incentives and subsidies, expectations of significant price drops, competition with well-subsidized conventional energy technologies as well as a continuing perception among many that solar remains a science experiment.” Too often, bullish solar forecasts are backed up by “cherry-picking” the facts, she says, a behavior that “will almost always lead to poor decision-making.”

Certainly a future where solar is an established “is” isn’t yet an established certainty. Will it be? For now, while the solar industry pushes its product, its survival-via-subsidy dependency means its outcome may be less a matter of iron will and solid research than luck and happenstance – the “what if….” factor. Some random examples:

What if…
…silicon became as cheap as sand?
…there was another oil embargo?
…oil goes down to $25 a barrel?
…the United Nations Framework on Climate Change issues a “legally binding and universal agreement on climate” that is weak?
…there was an unexpectedly huge breakthrough in cell efficiency?
…solar had a level subsidy playing field with fossil fuel and nuclear power generation?
…the naysayers of climate change convinced the world that renewables were just a scam?
…battery storage never works, technically and/or financially?
…module power ratings fell far short of guaranteed levels before the 25-year warranties expired?
…modules keep producing electricity much longer than 25 years at higher-than-expected power ratings?
…the solar market becomes saturated with few roofs or little land left for solar to cover?
…all new-build structures were mandated to have south-facing roofs?
…the current trade barriers were dropped?
…more trade barriers were added?
…3D PV cells and modules could be printed?
…the atmosphere became too polluted to use solar for effectively generating electricity?
…all PV researchers started a union and went on strike?
…all modules were made in China?

And on and on in the struggle to take the conditional out of solar.

The grammar of hope

The realization of the real future of solar may not be a perfect science. But the hope is that one day solar will have become the “is” it yearns to be. That is, as in the grammatical verb structure of the previous sentence, the future perfect.


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