Interest in solar power remains high -- as do the costs associated with deploying the technology. The field is an interesting case; costs have been progressively dropping as efficiencies have been rising. However, there's also concerns about materials and potentially easier to harvest alternatives such as wind and nuclear energy to consider. Ultimately, major adopters could help to tip the scale in solar power's favor by offering the kind of funding needed to create mass production on the massive scale needed to drop cost.
One such major adopter may soon commit to solar power -- Walmart. Known for its financial savvy and cutthroat competitive nature, Walmart has started a trial deployment at a few stores. If it deems the results acceptable, it plans to roll out solar panels on the roofs of all its stores.
That makes for a deployment of approximately 35 square miles. That in turn would result in -- estimating conservatively 3 watts per square foot -- about 3 GW of total capacity.
Some are lauding the move and hailing it as the chance that solar needs to finally establish itself as the primary energy source of choice. Seeking Alpha analyst David Fessler points to the gains in efficiency and drop in price of thin film solar cells, which don't use expensive polysilicon as potentially cutting the cost of solar power in half in two or three years. He believes the Walmart deployment will be copied by virtually all the retail chains across America.
However, significant challenges remain before that rosy picture could be realized. Most importantly, even with massive mass production and a 50 percent reduction in base costs, solar power would be lucky to just be breaking even with the cost of wind or nuclear power. Secondly, there's the challenge of storage, something which isn't a problem for other options such as nuclear or algae-based biofuels.
Third, there's the problem of excess. If the installation produces too much power, it will means to sell it back to the grid. And this will require complex metering, and America's power grid could hardly be called high-tech or flexible.
As Global CIO's Bob Evans mentions a final challenge is the government. He states, "Can you imagine the mess the not-so-invisible hand of governmental bureaucracy and regulation would make out of this plan? Environmental-impact studies for the next century, zoning hearings, regulatory applications, mountains of public-utility forms followed by thousands of PUC meetings, and so forth – and that's all before even so prodigious an achiever as Wal-Mart can get the first watt of solar energy harnessed. Is this the best use of Wal-Mart's time and money?"
Thus the Walmart plan is one of great expectations. And it is also one with great obstacles and a very real possibility of disappointment for solar power supporters.