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Don Quixote, Chasing Unicorns and Treasure Maps in the Solar Industry

After over 30 years of struggle solar industry participants cannot be blamed for viewing the lucrative feed-in-tariff incentive model as the best hope for a stable market. Focusing on the photovoltaic industry, the market (in Europe) for PV systems seemed to move overnight from megawatt levels of demand to gigawatts with many believing that terawatt shipment years were soon to come. The accompanying shortage of polysilicon led to high levels of investment in thin film technologies as well as metallurgical grade silicon, CSP and CPV technologies — all focused on answering the cost piece of the PV conundrum.

Utility scale (multi-megawatt) installations (far from the madding load) relatively quickly became the focus for long-time participants and new entrants as a way of getting more MWs installed.  Investors, encouraged by the promise of long term and stable returns on investment, drove interest in these large installations filing them into portfolios that gave the illusion of market stability (at least until retroactive changes in the rules became the norm).

These were heady times and everyone wanted in on the solar party.  Of the ~65 GWp installed from the early 1970s through 2011, including off-grid, 96 percent were installed between 2004 and 2011.  During the boom times very few industry participants allowed themselves to believe that hard times could ever come again, many chose to forget that there had ever been hard times. Figure 1 presents PV industry growth from 2001 through 2011. The data in Figure 1 are shipments to the first point of sale (buyer) in the market.

For a very short time, roughly 2004 through 2010, it seemed as if solar was a no-lose choice.  Not a doubter in the crowd — every idea seemed to have merit and even if it did not, merit could be invented.  Past struggles were forgotten and the industry moved on to its inevitable and successful future. 

Truthfully, the odds facing the solar industry (all technologies) would give pause to even the most dedicated optimist, yet optimism is necessary in order to persevere in the face of well-funded conventional energy, as well as a host of doubters.  A Don Quixote-like desire to change the energy paradigm, as well as to help save the environment from human-spawned destruction, has kept hope alive for a host of scientists, engineers, installers and solar proponents. This belief in the possibilities of the impossible has over decades of struggle kept solar industry participants focused, determined and committed – well before the brief FiT-driven days of profit. After over 30 years of struggle, well, it is no wonder that a few years of profit proved head turning.

The struggle never really went away, of course, even during the early FiT days — but the perception of overnight success sure was fun while it lasted.  Lists of annual top ten markets — along with conjecture about the next top ten markets abounded and it seemed as if a new and paradigm changing technology was announced every other week.  In the end, the belief that FiTs were the incentive of the future along with the dangerous belief that nothing would change may well have kept industry participants from developing back up plans — why would you need a backup plan when the next emerging market, technology or application is just around the corner?

Forecasts for these emerging markets, technologies and applications are always very large as well as ten to 20 years away.  It is fairly easy to promise multi-gigawatt success based on a global need for electricity (off grid and grid connected) — the reality is a much harder, though worthwhile, slog through a myriad of renewable substitutes as well as entrenched conventional energy and utility reluctance. When the odds against solar are tallied, Don Quixote’s quest to change the world as well as a need to believe in magic, unicorns and instant lottery riches seem almost insignificant.

People buy lottery tickets because they want to believe in an instant and easy path to success.  They embark on quests against overwhelming odds because they want to believe that courage and the basic rightness of a cause are strong enough to ensure success.  They believe that unicorns might just be real, if only in an alternate universe, because the chance of finding something beautiful, fanciful and innocent in this difficult world is worth having this fantasy take up space in a person’s brain.  And they continue developing solar technologies and business models in good times and in the hard times — and the hard times have lasted much longer — because the cause is lofty and the outcome crucial to the health of the planet.  It is human nature to wish for a treasure map pointing the way to a successful outcome. It is also human nature to persevere without magic, a treasure map or ensured overnight success, sallying forward with just a lofty and crucial cause to shore up courage. 

Lead image: Old map and compass via Shutterstock

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