Intersolar Chair: CA Losing Solar Race

Despite frequent pronouncements by the outgoing governor of the Golden State, the chair of the giant solar industry expo that winds up in San Francisco today says “California and the US are losing badly in the global race” for solar energy deployment.

Eicke Weber of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems made the comment on KQED’s Forum program this morning, during an hour devoted to solar energy prospects.

Weber said that California will represent a tiny fraction of the world’s growth in photovoltaics this year; just 200 of the 10,000 megawatts that he projects will be installed globally. California remains ahead of all other states in the deployment of solar panels. Weber’s forecast for California still represents two thirds of his projected total for the US. That’s “far below what could be expected from a country that’s as rich and sunshine-filled as the United States,” added Weber.

Chinese suppliers had a high profile at this week's solar expo in San Francisco (Photo: Craig Miller)

The global face of solar was impossible to miss at the Intersolar conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Three levels of exhibition space were crammed with industry exhibits. To get there, attendees had to jostle for space on the escalators. Though this was billed as the “North American” conference (following an even bigger one in Europe), the halls included major product exhibits from China, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and other nations. Organizers told the trade publication Solar Industry that they booked 30% more exhibitors than last year for the expo.

While speakers at the conference were calling for more government support for solar and other renewable energy sources, state officials in California were going to the mat to save what’s already in place here. On Wednesday attorney general/gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown said he is suing key players in the mortgage markets, in an effort to save the vaunted PACE program, which finances residential solar projects through property tax assessments. The announcement came even as the California Public Utilities Commission said it was suspending some solar incentive programs for schools and community organizations, after being overwhelmed with applications.

During the Forum discussion, Weber was sometimes at loggerheads with a former colleague from UC Berkeley, where Weber taught for more than 20 years. Weber predicted that rooftop solar could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels within seven years. But Severin Borenstein, who co-directs the Energy Institute at Berkeley, said he considered that forecast to be “at the very optimistic end of the range.”

Borenstein said he was not surprised that the PACE program is in trouble. He said that from the outset, mortgage lenders had been queasy about the program because when properties end up in foreclosure, the banks could find themselves second or third in line for their money, behind counties that finance the PACE energy upgrades.