The Solar Climb / by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts!

Miguel here again with more musings for your thought buckets. 

I want us to think about solar PV today. Although we don't often talk about solar PV from a systems level perspective, there are some notable global-market-level numbers to look at. This won't be a long post, but hopefully a thought provoking one, especially as we consider what the impact to human beings will be in all of this (after all, what else is the point if we're not looking out for the well being of others?). After reading through the massive report by GTM Research, we were a bit taken aback by this statistic: 

The concentration of global solar demand is more pronounced than at any time in the industry’s last seven years, such that the top four markets (China, the United States, India and Japan) are expected to account for 73 percent of total installations in 2017. Driven in large part by a new wave of installations in China, India’s market doubling in size, and falling PPA prices, global solar PV installations will grow more than 9 percent in 2017, reaching 85 gigawatts.
— The Global Solar Demand Monitor
Courtesy of GTM Research.

Courtesy of GTM Research.

In case you were wondering, the GSDM is a quarterly report that provides insight into major developments for the global solar landscape. They offer an assessment of the trajectory and key trends in the global market and providing thoughtful analysis of how the solar industry (as well as other renewable energy industries) function(s) across the planet. Green Tech Media also puts out The Energy Gang podcast, which is excellent and highly recommended for those of you who like to think about energy from a policy, economics-focused perspective. 

What Does This Mean?

To reiterate, they're calling for a 9% growth rate for solar installations world-wide. Given that there are some exciting consumer oriented prospects on the market here in the US, like the Tesla Solar Roof* (even though it's not the only solar roof available, nor the cheapest), one could assume this is responsible for the growth predictions. But scale up your thinking to what a 9% growth rate means on the global scale and you'll see that this kind of prediction has much more to do with the economics and viability of the technology writ-large. The potential impact solar carries on the way the built environment receives electricity is more potent than any other emerging technology. 

Again, 9% world-wide.

Yeah, it's a huge increase. We're talking a massive increase in supply for a rapidly increasing demand. Obviously this has some substantial implications if it holds true. The way the world is powered is undergoing a shift and so too will the way our built world receive it. More on that later. But first let's dive into how we're seeing this play out.

What About Specifics?

According to data put out by National Grid, last Friday alone in the UK, the nation’s solar panels beat the previous record set just last month by generating 8.7GW of power, more than nuclear and coal power combined. Making up around 25% of the UK's electricity that day, solar power was the second most used generating technology behind gas-fired power, which is certainly a new record. Similarly, we saw lion's share of California’s power demand going to solar, topping 50 percent for the first time in March of this year. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 40 percent of the state’s power demand was filled by utility-scale solar generation for several hours.

But it the impact doesn't squarely end with the consumer facing energy user. The uptick in solar industry jobs is soaring. The US added 50,000 solar jobs in 2016, a record in its own right. According to The Solar Foundation, the solar industry in the U.S. employs more than 260,000 workers nationwide — that’s more workers than Apple, Facebook, and Google combined

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation

Last year alone we saw a jump in annual global PV demand of more than 50 percent, and this year we'll hit 85GW, doubling the amount of installed solar PV we saw in 2014. And GTM projects that demand for solar power will continue to rise. Plummeting costs for solar and other enabling technologies have driven the global-market into a new era of solar production. India’s Minister for Power, Coal, New & Renewable Energy and Mines reported in April on a record low price for solar power in a competitive auction: 3.15 rupees (5 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour.

It's no surprise that 27 US cities (that number growing) have committed to a 100% renewable energy plan. The numbers are working out in a time when governments (and their associated utilities) are under increasing pressure to be competitive and actually accountable to their constituents. Change is underway, my friends, regardless of the current federal domestic energy policies in the US. 

Take a look at the graphs.

Courtesy of GTM Research.

Courtesy of GTM Research.

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation.

Courtesy of The Solar Foundation.

I'll offer here a platitude my father used to repeat when I was growing up (Happy Birthday Dad!). He always always told me to "follow the money" when trying to get to the reality of a situation. In keeping that advice, I found that major investors on the global stage are allocating serious funding for solar infrastructure projects and companies. Solar energy is no longer the minor league, marginalized energy technology that it was reduced to in years passed. It's got real potential to literally change the world we live in. I heard Erik Solheim, the executive director of UN Environment, on Morning Edition just this morning and was reminded of his vision for clean energy technologies in the world:

Ever-cheaper clean tech provides a real opportunity for investors to get more for less. This is exactly the kind of situation, where the needs of profit and people meet, that will drive the shift to a better world for all.
— Erik Solheim, Executive Director of UN Environment

So What? 

This kind of reporting is somewhat tangential from a building science perspective, but when we consider what's on the receiving end of the solar PV market evolution, we're talking about human beings. And we can't talk about human beings without talking about health, and that absolutely pertains to building science. If we're not prioritizing health and only looking at energy, we're letting the tail wag the dog.

With such a prominent and contentious national conversation on the dismantling of environmental regulations and whether clean energy has a future in the US, I'd like to remind us all to take a step back and look at how we directly impact our clients' lives as professionals. I'm not suggesting we discard the importance of renewables (just look at all the data I just presented!), but I am suggesting that we need to bring another major variable into the conversation as priority #1 - humans. 

We spend 70% of our lives in our homes and if we deliver those home with health as our organizing principle, we have the potential to drive the conversation toward better energy solutions naturally. Design around people, a good building follows. 

An energy declaration without a declaration related to the indoor environment makes no sense.
— Dr. Fergus Nicol (Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University)

There are clearly demonstrable benefits of a cleaner energy economy to the planet and to our client's pocket-books. We should be advocating for solar PV as concerned professionals in the AEC industry. The global trends are self-evident - we're pacing quickly toward a solar powered world and you need to keep tabs on what that means to your business, your ethos, and your projects. But if we're not keeping up with how our buildings function and provide a healthy environment for the occupants, the energy delivery vehicle doesn't matter. 

If we actually focused on solving the mean radiant temperature problems with enclosure performance we would solve the energy and thermal comfort problems in buildings.
— Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L.(Eng.), Healthy Heating

Grid competitive renewables are here and they're going to shape the way we deliver energy to the built environment. It's on us to know how our buildings are receiving that energy and whether the building is serving the occupants' health or if it's just "green" for the sake of being so. Don't let the tail wag the dog. Focus on delivering a healthy building and the rest will follow.

Now get out there and make it happen, folks - for the times, they are a changing.


*Did you know that the new non-roof Tesla Solar panel is produced by Panasonic?