Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Survey finds mixed bag of solar-power knowledge among many Americans

When it comes to their knowledge about solar power, many Americans are both exuberant in their desire to see solar more quickly become a larger part of the country's energy portfolio and ignorant of just how much sun-based electricity is being generated by their utilities. A slim majority would pay more on their monthly energy bills if their utility ramped up the percentage of its power provided by renewables, but a significant minority would not. Many think the U.S. leads the world in solar, and most believe that the optimal, most efficient way to deploy solar power is on private homes.

Those are some of the findings in the relatively modest "Summer Solstice" thought leadership survey of the U.S. public's "understanding and opinions about solar energy," designed and analyzed by Ketchum Global Research Network and carried out by Braun Research on behalf of Applied Materials.

Why relatively modest? Because only 2000 people - including 1000 in 5 populous states (California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Colorado)—were contacted when the poll was fielded earlier this month. Although the survey has a ±3% margin of error for the base sample at a 95% confidence level (pretty good by statistical standards), the results do not exactly offer the most comprehensive snapshot of the average Americans' take on solar energy. (Paragraph revised from original)

For that to happen, the number of those surveyed would have to grow into the tens of thousands. Demographic details of those participating in the survey (level of education, age, political/religious affiliations, etc.) would also be interesting to factor in, as well as the public's knowledge of "solar basics," such as the difference between photovoltaic and thermal (both heating and concentrating) technologies and whether the installation of a residential rooftop PV system is synonymous with going off the grid. (Paragraph revised from original)

Still, the results of the AMAT/Ketchum effort are revealing.

Other findings show that most of those surveyed (56%)—especially respondents in California (63%) and Colorado (71%, perhaps thanks to the presence of NREL?)—know that solar panel technology has advanced over the past two decades. A whopping 78% of respondents (95% in California) think that now, compared to 10 years ago, we "have the technological know-how for solar energy to become a really important part of our nation’s energy needs."

Another huge number of those surveyed, 81%, strongly agree that solar should play "a greater role in meeting our energy needs in the next 2 to 5 years." However, a slim plurality—41% to 38% (with 21% stating "don’t know") believe that most of the country’s renewable energy comes from solar sources (it doesn’t…yet)—and a fifth of respondents think the States already gets 20% or more of its power from old Sol.

Some 65% overall answered "true" when presented with the statement "solar energy is the most readily available of all the renewable energy sources." This question seems problematic, since it could be interepreted as meaning either the most readily available in terms of actual installed solar power capacity or that the question actually refers to the raw material—the solar energy from the sun itself—and its relative abundance (duh).

Another loaded question had to do with which kind of solar installation is the best. When asked if the "most efficient way to collect solar power is to install panels on individuals' homes," 56% responded "true," with most states' replies trending even higher, including California at 73% and New York at 65%.

In Applied Materials' press release announcing the survey results, the none-too-subtle suggestion is that the public is ill-informed and that utility-scale solar farms—no doubt equipped with gazillions of the company’s SunFab turnkey customers’ big-glass thin-film PV panels—are the most efficient deployment of solar. The "1.6% solution" is even trotted out—that is, that if the U.S. covered 1.6% of its land area with solar panels, it would suffice to meet its entire energy needs.

While scale and the economies thereof can be good things, there's also some pretty compelling arguments that the solar solution needs to combine large-, medium-, and small-scale PV and thermal, on and off the grid, centralized and distributed or a combo of the two, and that the smartening up of the grid and build-out/renovation of the power transmission infrastructure must accompany the gigawatt/terawatt solar revolution that many envision.

The jury's still out on whether the longer-term answer lies mostly in massive solar installations-even if Applied would like that to happen so a major component of its PV business strategy pays off. Nevertheless, the general message of solar being cost competitive with carbon-producing fuels at peak periods in a growing number of areas—both inside the U.S. and around the planet—gets more compelling every day.

Still, as the results of the survey show, the solar industry has its work cut out to get its messaging across to the American people.

But let us bask in the moment. "The summer solstice [June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere] is a good time to celebrate the unique power of the sun," quips one of Applied's resident solar PV rockstars, Charlie Gay, in the press release.

Funny thing is, the winter solstice offers cause for celebration too. Although the hours of good sunlight in the colder months and more northern climes may be few, crystalline-silicon panels perform quite well on crisp, clear, blue-sky days too.


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