Skip to main content

Solar Power: America Hangs Its Head

John Perlin, sitting on a solar energy panel at the European photovoltaics conference, laments America's lost lead in the field.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

At the world's most prestigious conference on photovoltaics, the 25th EU Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference in Valencia, Spain, I had the honor of being selected as one of the participants in its "PV Policy Debate 2010."

The panel was moderated by BBC environmental analyst Roger Harrabin and included Giovanni Federigo De Santi, director of the European Commission’s Institute for Energy Joint Research Center; Heinz Ossenbrink, director of the center’s photovoltaics section; Marcello Raimondi, Councilor of Environment, Energy, and Networks for Italy’s Lombard region; Karin Feier, director of Germany’s Market Introductory Programs for Solar Energy; Harry Lehmann, general director of Environmental Planning and Sustainable Strategies for Germany’s Federal Environments Agency; and Winfried Hoffman, vice president of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.

Editor's Note

Our John Perlin is attending the 25th annual European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference in Valencia, Spain. He will be providing updates throughout the meeting. Check back with our By the Way blog to see more reports from this conference.


My fellow panelists proudly talked about Europe having an accumulated installed photovoltaic capacity approaching in 2010 more than 21 gigawatts — the equivalent of 21 nuclear power plants. They addressed the expectation of at least 90 gigawatts of photovoltaics installed by 2020 and perhaps almost 400, with Germany contributing the majority.

What could I say when it came my turn?

I could only reply that their unanimous comment that the sunnier climates were the poorest and therefore had the fewest photovoltaic installations was not true. The last time I had been in California, it was still part of the developed world. As are Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, etc. (Or even Spain and Italy.)

I also commented that I came from the Persian Gulf of Solar Energy, but no one has yet gone drilling for photons with as much enthusiasm as have my sun-poor Northern European colleagues. I could only add that practical solar cells — silicon photovoltaics, which continue to rule the solar power market — were invented in 1954 at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, that America produced 100 percent of all photovoltaics until Reagan was elected and continued to dominate that niche into the 1990s. And yet despite all these advantages and its head start, America today only produces 5 percent of the world’s photovoltaics and has installed even less.

What else could come out of my mouth, but the Spanish, "vergueñza, vergueñza, vergueñza," or "shame, shame, shame."

And the same shameful story continues as President Barack Obama, amid hailing additional spending on renewable energy projects, has cut the funding to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, America's premier solar energy research facility (and which helped send me to this conference). Please, someone tell me, why is my country solar-phobic?