Sustainable energy takes a lot of persistence—and even more patience.
Just ask Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates.
Strong remembers standing on the roof of the White House with President Jimmy Carter more than 30 years ago when Carter dedicated the building's first solar system. Strong also remembers when the Reagan administration consigned that equipment to the dumpster.
“I made it a career goal to get solar back on the White House, and I accomplished that during this presidential administration,” says Strong, who specializes in the integration of renewable energy systems in buildings.
When the National Parks Service decided to install solar panels at the White House during the current Bush administration, Strong was selected for the job. The three solar systems his firm designed and engineered are still in use there today.
Since its founding in 1974, Harvard, Mass.-based Solar Design Associates has worked on many notable projects, including the first solar-powered Olympic games in Atlanta, the first solar high rise in New York, a solar-powered gas station for BP and solar electricity for the US Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
Despite these high-profile solar energy projects, Strong says there's been little commitment to renewable energy since the 1970s.
“Each administration since Richard Nixon has championed a goal of American energy independence,” says Strong. “There’s been a great deal of talk, and the first world oil embargo we were importing about 15 percent of our domestic demand in the U.S., and now it’s about 70 percent, so you can see there’s been no progress—none.”
Strong spoke to CNBC about advancements in the renewable energy space, the challenges renewable energy is facing currently and what the next presidential administration can do to help renewable energy reach its potential.
What are some major advancements that have been made in solar energy in the past 5 years?
It's mainly been a volume-building exercise, as more companies come into the marketplace, and everybody that's established tries to build production volume, and that’s for two reasons: the market demand is finally there; and second, as we know from many other technology booms, for example the personal computer, the iPhone or PDA, volume increase reduces individual unit cost...There have been efficiency upgrades all along the way, those have been evolutionary or incremental. We haven’t seen any major breakthroughs but mainly incremental progress and the steady reduction in cost as volume builds.
What are some important misconceptions about solar energy?
It’s free. The fuel is free, but the investment in the equipment and system is significant, and it’s a capital investment that you make all up front. You're buying decades worth of free energy once the systems are in place and operational, but you need to pay for that in advance, and we as Americans aren't used to paying for anything in advance, so it's a bit of a conundrum for people to get their arms around.
When, if ever, do you see price parity with conventional types of energy?
I see price parity absolutely, but keep in mind there are two factors that contribute to that. One is the reduction in cost of the alternatives and the other is the rising cost the conventional energy sources, and I’m afraid that the rising cost of conventional energy sources are going to drive the price parity crossing point probably as much or more than the price reduction of solar or wind for that matter, although wind - big wind, utility-scale wind - is likely to reach cost parity sooner than distributive solar.
Can any structure, commercial or residential, utilize solar energy and wind energy?
Wind is highly site specific. Where people want to live or build schools and offices, it is not necessarily the windiest place. The wind resources are concentrated along coastal zones and in mountain areas and also…across the Great Plains…So wind has to be sited very carefully and in fact wind resource analysis is required before any sizable investments are made. Having said that, where the wind resources exist wind can look very attractive... and one can argue it's darn close to competitive with the average cost of electrical generation today.
What would you like to see from the government in the coming years in terms of alternative energy?
Uniform nationwide interconnection standards—free and open access to the utility grid without the BS we’ve had to go through—and that’s true for the individual homeowner, and it’s true for a utility-scale wind farm.
The other ask is net metering…When you have a solar electric system in your building, whether it's your house or your place of work or your school...there are times when the solar income will exceed your instantaneous load demand, and then the question is 'What happens to that energy?' The obvious thing is to export it into the utility grid such that those renewable electrons can help to serve the greater community, and of course the customer that offered those electrons into the utility grid wants to be receiving a value for them.
The most elegant and simple solution is to let the meter run in two directions, a bi-directional meter, so that when your rooftop system is creating a surplus....those electrons should be able to flow freely out of your home through the utility meter and into the community distribution network to help support the community…If you're exporting, you effectively run your meter backwards…In the future...the customer gets electrons back and the meter flows in the normal direction and they get billed for them….Net metering…costs nobody anything - it's not a government program, it's not a massive expenditure, it's just a policy directive which every other Western country has implemented on a uniform, national basis, because it is in the best interest of that country to have it…We still only have about 30 states that have net metering in place and almost all of them have a little bit of a different policy.
Now if you want go further, a renewable energy portfolio standard for the country. About twenty-some-odd states have state-implemented energy portfolio standards. A renewable energy portfolio standard is simply a mandate that the utilities at some future date, could be five years, could be ten years, are required to have a certain minimum percentage of contribution of their entire energy mix from solar derived generation or wind derived generation or in general renewable derived generation. And often times that percentage of renewable contribution ratchets up as time goes forward.