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Solar Goes Mainstream

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There comes a time in the life of any new technology when it transforms from a niche-market luxury to household fixture.

I remember two such moments well. At Christmas 1982, my parents presented me with a Timex Sinclair 1000 – a cheap computer (under $100!) that plugged into the black-and-white TV set and used a cassette recorder to load programs. It was right around then that TIME named the personal computer “Machine of the Year.” The Timex Sinclair was more or less useless – a doorstop, really – but the Apple Macintosh would come around two years later, and the rest was history.

The other moment was in 1995, when I was working as a political writer here in Boston. I’d had some experience with the Internet during college, but it was in the mid-1990s that President Clinton started talking up the virtues of the “information superhighway.” With the creation of the World Wide Web and popularization of e-mail, it suddenly became impossible to function well in any kind of a “knowledge” field without a steady connection to the Internet. 

Could such a moment be on the horizon with solar power?

Prices for solar panels have plummeted in the last two years, and are expected to decline by an additional 15 percentin 2011. In the last few months, I’ve begun to hear frequent advertisements for solar energy – largely third-party leasing deals – on the radio. And now, the giant home retailer Lowe’s has purchased a share of solar leasing firm Sungevity, which uses automated price quoting software to reduce the hassle of “going solar” and aspires to be the “Dell of solar cells.” The company’s services will soon be marketed in Lowe’s stores.

For decades, fans of solar power have had to look to the laboratory for signs of innovation. Now, innovation is happening throughout the supply chain – from the laboratory to the factory floor to the marketing department. 

And that is going to create a major shift in the dynamics of the solar power marketplace. Not that long ago, consumers had to jump through numerous hoops to figure out how to install solar panels on their homes. Now, solar companies are investing their resources trying to sell their products to us!

Solar prices haven’t dropped enough yet to enable the technology to take off in the absence of government support. But as we predicted would occur in our reports on California’s solar market in the mid-2000s, the time is approaching when the nature of that support changes – from large incentives for a small number of solar installations to smaller incentives designed to smooth solar energy’s penetration into the mass market. 

Continuing to provide public policy support for solar power will hasten the day when solar energy becomes cheaper than electricity from the grid – a day that could be approaching more quickly than anyone would have predicted just a few years ago.