Solar PV Outlook 2012: The Race To Go Mainstream

As the solar photovoltaic (PV) industry races to get bigger, its ability to make the technology smaller – and in some cases transparent – may be what ultimately gives it broader consumer appeal.

The industry will certainly continue to be driven by large-scale rooftop and ground-mounted developments. But PV has what other mainstream renewable technologies lack — the ability to invite itself into our living rooms and our back pockets. Solar has always had a technological following, but the industry is increasingly looking to make a direct connection through the products we use.

The wind industry recently launched its WindMade label, with the hopes that shoppers will choose to buy products made in some way with wind energy. The solar industry is working to get much closer to the consumer with products that are built around solar technology.

There have been steady gains made with solar technology powering everything from computers to electric vehicles. These partnerships are still relatively new and they have yet to hit shelves or showrooms in any significant way. But consumers are waiting. A recent survey found that nine out of 10 Americans want more solar energy and industry leaders are hoping this can be the year solar makes a splash on Main Street.

Below are some areas in which solar may continue to make inroads — both from a consumer and a marketing perspective — over the next year, and beyond.

In Your Pocket

The U.S. continues to lag behind solar innovations surfacing in the developing world – places with no grid, yet a growing appetite for electronics. Samsung introduced a solar-powered netbook that needs two hours of sunlight for one hour of battery life. And there are a growing number of solar cell phone chargers that have emerged recently. While the current market for these devices remains in places like rural India, it’s only a matter of time before solar becomes fully integrated in laptops and cell phones in the U.S. Once that finally happens, that’s when solar will truly come down from the rooftops and into our lives.

In Your Digital World

We’ve seen solar products go mainstream in professional football and soccer stadiums and along the red carpet at the recent Emmy Awards. It’s all a part of the growing appeal of the technology. So when big iconic companies turn to solar solutions, it speaks directly to consumers. Just recently, Apple decided to use solar to power a massive data center in North Carolina, Google invested heavily in rooftop solar financing and Facebook announced it would install a solar co-generation system that will combine hot water and electricity at its new corporate headquarters in Northern California. These three companies in many ways are the platform by which we communicate, and to have them leading the corporate charge toward renewables like solar could have vast implications next year and beyond.

In the Garage

Carmakers are moving quickly into the emerging electric vehicle market with several models expected to hit showrooms in 2012. But drivers are also likely to increasingly question how that EV is being powered. Does it make sense to trade in your gas guzzler for a coal guzzler? There is a growing number of solar companies that are partnering with carmakers to provide solar-powered charging stations both at work and in the garage. SunPower has forged an alliance with Ford, which recently unveiled a “Drive Green for Life” program that will use a 2.5-kilowatt rooftop array to charge the new Ford Focus electric vehicle due to hit the streets in 2012. And SunEdison has joined the Pecan Street smart grid demonstration project in Austin, Texas, where it will lead the development of home PV charging stations for the Chevy Volt.

In Your Home, And On Your Roof

Anybody who stopped by the National Mall in Washington for the Solar Decathlon university competition in late September saw the power of innovation and the potential of solar as an integrated solution for new homes. Yet solar does have a barrier to cross with a significant portion of consumers — namely those who like the idea of solar but don’t like how it would look on their home. At a trade show in Japan in October, 3M introduced a solar film for windows that makes them shatterproof and generates electricity, albeit at a much lower efficiency than traditional panels. For large buildings with windows covering a vast surface area, the integrated energy solution could have enormous potential for energy savings. And Dow Corning has introduced a rooftop shingle that blends well with traditional shingles and goes up with minimal installation via an old-fashioned hammer and nail.

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