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A solar panel in operation on a farm in southwestern Ontario. (Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)
A solar panel in operation on a farm in southwestern Ontario. (Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail)

In the darkness, solar industry sees some light Add to ...

The key to the industry’s success will be its ability to compete with other forms of power generation, Mr. Hammerbacher said. “For the first time in our industry, we have some very, very large markets where we are better than parity with the current form of electricity generation. We don’t need any subsidy to compete in those markets. That is a tremendous step for the industry.”

With files from reporter Renata D’Aliesio

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NOTABLE SOLAR FAILURES

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Solyndra, an upstart California solar panel maker that got more than $500-million in loan guarantees from the U.S. government, filed for bankruptcy protection last fall.

– Colorado-based photovoltaic module maker Abound Solar suspended operations at the end of June, and filed for bankruptcy protection early in July. It had also got U.S. loan guarantees.

– Arise Technologies of Waterloo, Ont., once a rising star in the Canadian solar technology scene, went bankrupt in April. Three years ago, it opened a solar cell manufacturing plant in Germany with much fanfare, but it closed in October, 2011, when financing dried up. The rest of the company soon followed.

– Evergreen Solar, a Massachusetts-based solar panel maker, filed for bankruptcy protection last August, blaming cutthroat competition from Chinese panel makers.

– SpectraWatt, a solar cell maker, filed for bankruptcy protection last August. Many assets were sold to Canadian Solar Inc.

– BrightSource Energy, a California company that plans to build solar thermal plants (which concentrate the heat of the sun's rays to run electrical generators), withdrew an $183-million initial public offering in April, citing weak markets for green technology companies.

– Three other German solar companies, Solon SE, Solar Millennium AG and Solarhybrid AG, have filed for insolvency in the past few months.

First Solar, the U.S.-based solar cell maker that specializes in “thin-film” panels, laid off 30 per cent of its employees and closed one of its factories in Germany in the spring. It cited cuts to European solar subsidies.

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THE LIMITS OF THE SUN

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Like wind, solar power is a variable source of electricity. It disappears when the sun goes down.

That means that even as solar panels get cheaper and more ubiquitous, there will be limits to the proportion of power demand they can satisfy.

Stefan Heck, who leads the clean technology practice at consultants McKinsey & Co., says the limit depends very much on each individual market, its sun conditions and power needs.

Still, “we can get to 30 per cent without any major changes in how we do things ... that’s an easy initial upper bound,” he said. Some jurisdictions could get to 60 per cent solar power, if their power grid was upgraded to handle variability, and there was a buffer system that could store power for a few hours until needed, he added.

Getting to 100 per cent is theoretically possible, because there is enough silicon on the planet to make the required cells, and enough space on fields and rooftops to hold the panels. However, that would require massive amounts of electricity storage – - and the technology is just not there yet, Mr. Heck said. “I don’t think it is realistic to go to 100 per cent solar.”

Electricity storage is still impractical at a large scale, he said, because it adds so much to the cost of the power. Currently, the least expensive is pumped hydro storage, where water is pumped into a reservoir when electricity is cheap and available, then used to run turbines when the sun goes down (or the wind stops blowing). But there are clearly geographical limitations to this technology.

While there is ongoing research on batteries, they are still very expensive and won’t likely be a practical solution for at least another decade, Mr. Heck said. In the meantime solar can be an effective part of a wider energy mix, and is particularly valuable to handle peak daytime loads due to air conditioning and cooking, he said.

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