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Solar Industry Shines Bright In Future US Energy, Infrastructure Plans
As the topic of infrastructure continues to be a federal focal point, Professor Schiff answers four questions about the national benefits of incorporating more solar energy into future infrastructure.
Q: How does solar energy fit into larger plans to clean up U.S. energy production?
A: Solar and wind energy are the key right now to ‘decarbonizing’ energy production in the U.S. and the world. The technologies need to penetrate much more deeply to have an effect. The good news: new solar installations are less expensive per unit of energy than new gas-fired power plants. Solar is not being left behind. Indeed for both wind and solar, I think it is possible to wean them from government subsidy – but new energy purchases by the government should certainly privilege these technologies over fossil fuel-based power plants.
Q: How could legislators address some of the concerns people have around the solar industry?
A: There are substantial problems that could be addressed in new legislation and programs.
- Most of the current solar cells use crystalline silicon and are made abroad. There is a chance that an exciting new technology – called perovskites – can be the basis for growing competitive U.S. solar manufacturing. I support investment here.
- Both solar energy and wind energy are available when the weather (and sun) is right. They need to be complemented by energy storage technologies. Nobody really knows what the ultimate storage system will be. I personally suspect that batteries will be the main technology – there are many types. I recommend significant government investment in battery and other storage technologies. This would involve both expanded research and subsidies such as tax credits. This investment pushes the technologies along what is called an “experience curve” – and we hope brings them to a production cost that is low enough that an industry can be weaned from subsidy.
- Again, solar and wind energy are spread widely – they are not produced in single massive facilities. One example of massive facilities is the coal-burning plant at Four Corners in the western deserts. Because of this distribution, the electrical grid is going to be challenged. I support investment in grid resiliency – we’ve seen the problems recently in California & Texas – and in new technologies to handle the more complex distribution problems. Interestingly, quantum computing – where Syracuse University is planning new laboratories – is being explored as a potential tool for handling grid optimization in the new environment.
Q: Job creation has been a major focus of Pres. Biden’s infrastructure plans. How does solar compare to other clean energy industries?
A: As it relates to jobs, grid renovation is an infrastructure project that would generate an enormous number of jobs. Solar and wind installations are also great job creators. Manufacturing jobs are the most difficult because they need to compete with overseas plants. I think the opportunities exist mainly where new technology is involved (such as perovskites, probably batteries, etc.).
Q: What about tariffs?
A: About tariffs and solar: the main jolt in solar right now is the end of a U.S. tax credit program. I think the industry will survive this jolt fine. I don’t have much to say about tariffs right now – the situation is fluid, and tariffs are at best a short-term Band-Aid for problems in international relations.
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