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Solar Panel Prices Down 80 Percent

The case for building a Jamaican solar industry: Part 1  -David Cooke






The speed of implementation of solar-PV projects surpasses all other competing power technologies, bar none. (Inset) David Cooke.


WHY solar?


The simple answer: solar-photovoltaic (solar-PV) is now the least expensive way of providing electricity for your home or business. It’s cheaper than the fossil-fuel based energy supplied by Jamaica Public Service (JPS), cheaper than coal or natural gas, even cheaper than hydro or nuclear or small wind turbines.

It is also convenient as it eliminates all possibilities of power cuts if you also incorporate storage and/or your small home “gen-set” — Honda generators or the like. But best of all, solar can be installed right at your premises in sizes to suit your needs. And once installed, the price never goes up. No more electricity price volatility, no worrying about future light bills!

But if that were not enough, consider this: Solar power worldwide is growing at such an astronomical pace that it is now faster than that of cell phones, which has had spectacular growth.

Growing faster than cellphones? you ask incredulously? Think of the transistor radio. The first one was produced in 1955, and by the time Jamaica got independence in 1962, transistor radios were everywhere and TVs were already becoming popular. The huge “tube” radios and the energy-guzzling music-producing behemoths called “gramophones” were disappearing.

The transistor made miniaturisation possible, ushering in the age of integrated circuits and the home computer, then smaller tablets, and the like. Growth in home electronic products was stellar. Miniaturisation spread to communication, and those “bricks” of hand-held mobile phones of the 1980s were condensed and became cute flip-phones and slider phones; easy to fit in your pockets. Cellphones quickly proliferated.

Then, in 2007, the year preceding the world’s financial meltdown, the first smartphone connecting the Internet and voice was introduced. In the eight short years since, even the most fossilised of us (the older generation) has owned at least one smartphone, with many of us having multiple phones, even remote villagers in every country. The era of fixed landlines and dial phones was blown away by this explosion of cell and smartphones.

As spectacular as the cellphone growth was, however, solar power’s growth has eclipsed it globally. No more is solar-PV thought of as consumer household electronics, powering calculators and the like. Solar is now mainstream electrical generation, bigger than your home’s diesel generator, bigger than JPS in many cases.

At the turn of the 21st century, just a little over 1,000 megawatts of solar existed globally, or a little more than the JPS installed capacity. By the end of 2014, this 1 GW starting amount had grown to over 140 GW globally (140,000 MWs) or the equivalent of times the capacity of 175 JPS. (That’s some 12-nuclear-plant amount of solar in a time too quick to commission one nuclear plant).

By comparison, JPS has a cumulative generation capacity of some 800 megawatts, but only some 350 MW of that operate and produce constantly. A lot of the other generator units are old and too inefficient to run constantly.

Global installations of solar have roughly doubled every two years for the last 10 years, and are now being installed at the rate of over 47 GW annually. This now marginally surpasses wind in annually installed amounts, after a decade of stellar growth of wind power: Meteoric growth by any measure, higher than cellphones and now competing with wind.

Individual countries are now ramping up solar installations at the phenomenal rates of 15 GW per year (China and India), and old stalwarts like Europe, Japan and the USA at near 8 GW each per year (10 times the capacity of JPS each, per year). In cloudy Germany on some summer days, the daily output from installed solar has surpassed 20 per cent of total electrical generation from all sources for the twenty-four hour period, in this vast country that is the economic driver and leader of Europe. Daylight hours solar output likely surpassed 40 per cent of total. Germany has grown more energy self-sufficient via solar and wind; so too large swathes of Europe as far-flung as Portugal and Italy and Spain.

But the spread of solar-powered generation has now reached Latin America in large amounts (Brazil, Chile) and Africa (South Africa, Ghana). Even the oil-rich countries of the Middle East are now speedily ramping up solar installations in large numbers and sizes given its low electricity price that beats their domestic natural gas, while keeping their oil in the ground for future export to other nations. Smart forward planning on their part, don’t you think?

As far away as sun-drenched Australia, solar-powered generation (mainly rooftop small-scale) is causing the early shut-down of gigantic coal-fired plants because coal cannot compete, so low is the price of their roof-top mainly residential solar. This, despite Australia being a major coal producer and exporter headed by a prime minister elected to power on the platform of “coal is king”, and who is determined to overturn the country’s renewable energy targets.

The speed of implementation of solar-PV projects surpasses all other competing power technologies, bar none! Japan, since the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, has quickly replaced lost generation via newly commissioned solar in swift time. None of the old-style technologies could meet this time crunch. A 500 MW solar-PV farm took just 18 months from approval to start-up, and there are countless numbers of these sizes under construction or already producing all over the world. A 100 MW solar-thermal power plant (steam-producing plant via parabolic-trough mirrors) took just 28 months from approval to commissioning. But added to speed, the installation of solar is done in a unitised (modular) manner so partial amounts are placed online as soon as installed, giving a rolling implementation of projects.

No waiting for the facility to be complete before start-up occurs. No cost overruns.

Compare that to a nuclear plant which takes some 17 years to complete and which has resulted in massive cost overruns that doubled or tripled starting estimates. This now concerns Great Britain, given the heavy subsidies needed for their new facility that will nevertheless generate at double the present electricity rates. So cost certainty, and speedy implementation for solar.

What’s more, these new solar facilities now match the 40-year lifespan of nuclear and hydro plants. This lowers their electricity unit costs and makes them easier to attract institutional financing. Fossil-fuel plants have lifespans of just 20 years.

In addition, land space requirements are constantly shrinking with improved panel conversion efficiencies. A one-quarter acre lot can accommodate 1.5 MW of regular panels for a solar farm. Even with an all-rooftop solar installation (which is not ideal), JPS always-on 350 MW-replacement would need just 100,000 rooftops — the equivalent of or maybe fewer than what exists in the municipality of Portmore alone. No virgin land space would be required.

But best of all is the huge drop in equipment prices. In the last four years, solar panel prices have dropped rapidly, by more than 80 per cent. Panels now account for just 20 per cent or less of system costs, whereas a decade ago they accounted for over 75 per cent of system costs. This huge price drop drives the exponential adoption of solar, and price drops are expected to continue with every resultant volume growth.

This drop is aided by constantly improving module conversion efficiencies, along with improvements in manufacturing techniques that cut the amount of raw materials used. Electricity costs via solar-PV have come down so rapidly that they are now generally lower than existing coal or natural gas generators, and much less than new nuclear high-priced plants.

The more sunny the local conditions, the lower the cost of solar electricity produced. In the Jamaican environment, climate conditions are near-ideal for solar. Strong solar irradiation (sunny conditions) and marginal variation in length of hours of daylight from winter to summer make for near perfect conditions. Aided by our small-island daily weather pattern, that virtually eliminates extended cloudy conditions, unlike continental weather which can be overcast for up to five days at a time.

This combination is a solar-PV owner’s dream come true. Jamaica’s combination of excellent weather conditions make for solar power prices that are half that of the global leader in solar, Germany. Cloudy Germany has over 40 GW of mostly roof-top installations with a tariff regime of 8.72 euro-cents per KWh.

Solar-PV possesses the lowest cost of electricity presently available and the costs of new installations will only continue to drop with more growth, while producing noiseless generation with no maintenance. So why not solar?!

Tomorrow Part 2 …The Jamaican experience

David Cooke is a UWI-trained electrical engineer who has run enterprises in Jamaica that use large amounts of electricity, including his own food processing business that relied heavily on freezing and cold-storage operations. He is now a budding independent clean-energy developer.


Category/ies:Jamaica News, News.
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