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Solar in context: disruptive tech or tech disrupted?

Solar in context: disruptive tech or tech disrupted?
Courtesy/ SoCore/City of Kearney. Solar farm under construction in 2017 northeast of Kearney.


LINCOLN–Central City and Scottsbluff are among the Nebraska communities that reflect a nationwide solar energy boom in which solar power now can compete with other utility options without having to be nursed by federal subsidies. But in the coming year, It’s a boom that could be augmented by technology breakthroughs, or busted by federal legislation.

Natale Ianno, electrical engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that revolutionary solar technologies are within reach.

Ianno’s work in solar technology involves something referred to as thin film solar cells. These are solar cells that can be applied to an inexpensive substrate like glass, plastic or metal. Silicon is the substrate used in the majority of solar panels on the market now, but thin-film solar cell technology offers engineers enormous advantages like flexibility.

But two U.S. solar panel manufacturing companies, Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, are lobbying for market interventions that could stunt or reverse the sunny outlook of solar in the state.

As reported in the financial magazine Barron’s, the U.S. International Trade Commission has ruled that the two bankrupt companies have been hurt by foreign imports, which means that the highly protectionist Trump administration will be able to decide whether to impose tariffs on solar panels manufactured in foreign countries, making the imports more expensive.

The solar projects undertaken in Nebraska thus far have largely depended on imports. The Central City community solar project panels were built in China or South Asia because the price point of the solar tech manufactured in the U.S. is still discouraging, said Central City administrator Chris Andersen.

If tariffs like the ones being discussed had been in place when he was investigating solar options for Central City, Andersen said he would have passed on solar energy.

Ianno emphasized that even a stable, thriving solar market has inherent limitations. Unless there are more breakthroughs in energy storage, like the sodium sulfur batteries being used in California’s solar farms, solar will never be the silver bullet to solve all the nation’s needs.

Ianno said that “as a world we need to move toward a higher percentage of renewables,” but that solar will likely be a supplement to nuclear or other power sources in maintaining the nation’s power grids.

This story is one of a three-part series on solar power in Nebraska.

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