By Greg Mills, Associate Editor
Apple is known for thinking outside of the box. And we know the company has installed a pretty sophisticated solar energy system to supply green power to run their server farms.
Going off-the-grid has certainly forced Apple to investigate the solar energy market and see opportunities there. A wind generation system storing heat from wind generation was the subject of a recent patent application by Apple.
There has been major changes in the solar industry that might tempt Apple to get into renewable energy. First, China has emerged as the gorilla in the room for manufacturing standard silicon photo cells. At time the US Department of Energy was investing millions of dollars of tax payer funds to launch unproven solar technology that flopped, China invested in ramping up manufacturing of the work horse 156X156 mm standard photo cell.
Currently, three-fourths of all solar equipment and related materials imported into the United States comes from China. Germany has lost out dramatically, as China has reduced the world market price for silicon solar cells to levels the rest of the world can’t match. China actually was so successful in reducing the cost of silicon they can’t even absorb that much silicon internally and must sell excess silicon waters and panels on the world market or shut down some production.
This has driven spot prices of the standard silicon wafer to levels below the actual cost of production at solar wafer plants in the US. This has alarmed the three domestic silicon manufacturing companies, who cried “dumping” and pressed the US Department of Commerce to slap tariffs on Chinese silicon. This has had unfortunate consequences. First of all, domestic companies that can’t compete on the world market need to go broke.
Taxing the entire US solar industry to support three unsustainable domestic “failure mode” companies slows the United States adoption of solar technology. Secondly, putting up barriers to selling cheap Chinese silicon in the US creates a larger glut of unsold silicon on the world market. This enlarged glut pushes the spot price of silicon wafers even lower and keeps the three domestic manufacturers out of world markets even further. We should let China rain all the cheap silicon on us they are willing to sell.
The life expectancy of current generation silicon panels is about 25 years. The notion of placing significant US tariffs on Chinese silicon runs opposite of Obama’s rants about the US going green. Typical of the US government over the last 25 years, spikes in oil prices caused the US Government to put short term incentives in place to push solar technology. The minute oil prices go down or energy seems less an issue, the tax incentives are allowed to expire and progress withers on the vine. A long term policy is required and the US Government has demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t understand the long time frame for a sea change in energy production.
Now that I got my soap box time, let me continue. Apple is actually pretty well situated to enter the solar energy market. A recent development in domestic solar – I mean home solar systems — is the notion of leasing a solar energy installation.
The show stopper for solar adoption has always been money. The period for amortization of a solar system has to be in balance with the cost of oil or natural gas. If a solar system on your home provides half the electrical required, how long would it take to pay off the new solar panels on the roof? As electrical rates go up and solar energy installations go down, the break-even point becomes more interesting.
An alternative to buying the system and installation package with cash or a loan is allowing a solar leasing company to provide the entire package at no cost to the consumer. The company charges you for the energy the system provides your home over 20 years. The downside to that is that the company rather than the homeowner collects the government incentives and going green only benefits the homeowner indirectly. Some sort of give and take will certainly balance the scales. Then, when the homeowner sells the home, the lease has to be a part of the deal. This might give pause to the whole concept for many people.
The trick in leasing solar equipment and being charged only for energy is metering. A device has made it to the market that amounts to a little box that hooks up to either a hot water or electrical solar system and the Internet. That device uses algorithms to accurately calculate the energy and report back to the company server how much to bill the homeowner.
Apple is big enough to make a meaningful splash in the solar market if they chose to jump in. First in creating better controllers, metering devices, panels and software systems to support the leasing or sales of domestic solar systems. The question is will they?
That is Greg’s Bite