Now Is America's Moment to Assert Itself as a Solar Superpower

08/05/2014 11:11 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2014

Solar is the energy story of the 21st century. It is also the best opportunity in decades for the United States to achieve its own energy independence, contribute to long-term climate stability, and prove we can compete internationally in manufacturing, jump starting domestic job growth at a time when just 30 percent of manufacturing jobs lost during the recession have been recovered.

With the current domestic natural gas boom serving as a bridge to this solar future, the United States has a chance to claim its role as a "solar superpower." But we must first recognize the need for a course correction in our industrial policy. The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership created by President Obama in 2011 has the specific goal of maintaining "U.S. leadership in the emerging technologies that will create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America's global competitiveness." But we are failing to do that in solar.

America invented modern solar technology four decades ago. And then it promptly gave that technology away, allowing Germany and then China to become the epicenters of solar power. In the process, China helped drive the cost of solar down to just one percent of what it cost 40 years ago. Yes, just one percent. The cost of solar has been cut in half seven times during that period. We have finally reached a tipping point on cost, and solar can economically compete in much of the United States and overseas with traditional sources of energy without government subsidies.

But that was just Solar 1.0. We are now embarking on the Solar 2.0 era, what some refer to as the "gigawatt era". We're no longer talking megawatt-scale production and deployment, but gigawatt scale.

Whereas solar has been a high growth story over the last decade (with 50 percent annual growth), it pales in comparison compared to what is to come. To date, the world has installed approximately 130GW of solar power. If solar achieves its destiny it would account for about 14 percent of the energy supply by 2050. This relatively small 14 percent forecast still results in the requirement to install 15,000GW of solar energy. Only 14,870GW to go. We are just at the beginning of a 30-year growth cycle. Solar will follow other ubiquitous technologies that have taken over the world like semiconductors and flat panel displays. It will be everywhere.

Unfortunately, other countries are doing a better job of implementing solar plans than the United States.

But it is not too late. Most of the solar capacity in other countries is old silicon technology, developed decades ago. It has done a great job taking us to where we are, but the future of solar is in new technologies such as thin film PV and high-speed automated factories. These technologies are being developed here in the United States. If they are implemented here, rather than being sold to China, the United States can become the leader in Solar 2.0. Imagine that -- manufacturing a product in the United States more affordably than China.

And why is manufacturing important? It is true that solar is already growing rapidly in the United States, but the positive impact to our economy has been largely on the service industry -- the installers, dealers, operators, and those financing them. These U.S. businesses are buying cheap Chinese panels, so we are once again in danger of relying on a foreign source for our energy needs. Doing this with oil hasn't worked out well for us. Why relegate ourselves to just half of the solar future? Why not build on our government's efforts to pursue advanced manufacturing? By capitalizing on our nation's technology and manufacturing skill sets we can become the world leader in solar manufacturing and export energy products, instead of adding to our trade deficit by importing foreign solar panels. In the process we create even more jobs, and these manufacturing jobs have an even stronger impact on the U.S. economy than the many service jobs already created. Let's do both; we can have our cake and eat it too.

The United States can and should take the starring role in solar, the greatest energy story of the 21st century.