Fellowship of the sun: Quest for solar power continues

Chronicling the progress of solar energy has at times been like trying to follow Legolas, Gimli and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring as they journey across Middle Earth.

Here's a possible dispatch from soon after their initial departure: They've gone through the Misty Mountains and successfully beat the odds in the mines of Moria. But Gandalf dies battling a balrog.

Likewise, solar continues to push forward despite tremendous odds: U.S. manufacturers have been buffeted by international market forces but battle through. Solyndra is killed by a beast known far and wide as bankruptcy.

It's not easy. Yet, in both cases, the quest continues. For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, the quest will never be over. My 15-year-old son currently carries a copy of "Return of the King."

For solar, the news on the whole is positive. Clint Wilder, senior editor at market analyst Clean Edge, says in a recent post that "U.S. solar installations grew 109 percent, adding 1,855 megawatts." He says that's thanks to "falling photovoltaic prices, favorable policies in key states, and the aggressive business strategies of installers/financiers like Solar City, SunRun, and SunEdison."

The battle for solar

That's not saying there's not a Battle of Hornberg at Helm's Deep still out there. (Recall in the Peter Jackson film "The Two Towers" where the fellowship whips up on bloodthirsty orcs in what has got to be one of the best fight screens in all moviedom.)

Solar progress in California's San Joaquin Valley has mirrored that in the rest of the nation. Development may not be as fast, but projects are getting green-lighted. The California Energy Commission shows 4,242.5 megawatts worth of major solar energy generating projects approved in the past several years and another 1,500 megawatts under review.

In the meantime, smaller projects are going in all over the state and the rest of the country. Here in the Valley, it's no different. But some spots are more progressive than others.

Signs point to job growth

Hector Uriarte at Proteus Inc. in Visalia says solar projects have begun to hurdle the permitting process and break ground, especially in Tulare County. “We have an 80 percent placement rate,” he said of his organization’s solar panel installation training program.
That placement rate represents a 20 point increase from about a year earlier at his organization.

Uriarte says the solar industry is very close to being a significant driver in the job market. “Once it breaks open, the need (for workers) will be tremendous,” he said.

Damon Silva of Bakersfield-based A-C Electric Co. said the utilities will play a big role in how fast solar projects materialize and begin to become a major driver in the San Joaquin Valley economy. “A lot of this has to do with the utilities themselves,” he said. “There are quite a few of our projects ready to go.”

Utilities must approve an energy project's link to the grid. That power has to meld seamlessly with existing sources and not overtax overhead, or underground, cables.

Educators seek to meet the need

The expansion in the industry means a need for jobs. The San Joaquin Valley's colleges have formed a group dubbed the Central California Community Colleges Committed to Change, or C6, to meet that demand. The program seeks to create accelerated educational training programs that produce qualified graduates for jobs in critical sectors that industry desperately wants to fill.

One of the targeted sectors is alternative and clean energy. The group is looking to form training and educational programs that build upon common curriculum that potential employers can depend upon. Discussion by the group at a recent meeting about clean energy focused on producing graduates fluent in the fundamentals and expanding from a solid base curriculum.

There is great potential. For instance the market for energy efficiency, which dovetails with solar, is huge. Steve Earl, president and CEO of Sequoia Energy Services, says he’s come across reports that indicate meeting California’s improved building standards for energy efficiency in new and retrofit structures would cost $90 billion. However, the projected return is $400 billion in savings.

Failure is not an option

The need to clean up our air is tremendous. In other words, the fellowship of the sun must not fail. My Precious, best known as Gollum's ring, for purposes of comparison, represents in this case fossil fuels. Spellbinding and useful but ultimately deadly.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that six monitoring stations up in the Arctic reveal what clean energy advocate 350.org has been saying all along, that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air are increasing. Sampling at those sites showed concentrations exceeding 400 parts per million in spring for several years.

"The northern sites in our monitoring network tell us what is coming soon to the globe as a whole," Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, tells procon.org. "We will likely see global average CO2 concentrations reach 400 ppm about 2016."

Gimli & Legolas

This solar fellowship has a long way to go before it reaches the climax seen in "The Return of the King." But consider this: The industry has quite a few proponents who are true believers.

These, who I liken to Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf, boast immeasurable talent. Consider, for instance in the movie version of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" when the two start counting off their kills at Helm's Deep, courtesy imdb.com.

Gimli: Legolas! Two already!
Legolas: I'm on seventeen!
Gimli: Huh? I'll have no pointy-ear outscoring me! [kills another one]
Legolas: [shoots two more arrows] Nineteen!

Soon others of the fellowship will begin listing not their kills but their successes. Jobs will follow.