Solar Energy's Sunny Future

Over the past several years, the solar industry has been trying to recover from a crash in the price of silicon—a key component in the construction of solar panels.

For most of us, the effects of the price drop were masked by the tinge of scandal: Among the victims of the crash was the infamous Solyndra, which went bankrupt at the cost to the country of hundreds of millions of dollars. Conservatives seized on the company's collapse as a reason for the government to divest itself from renewable-energy projects. Campaigning outside Solyndra's shuttered headquarters in Fremont, Calif., last year, Mitt Romney argued that the company was a symbol of "the president's failure to understand the basic nature of free enterprise in America."

But amid the right-wing outrage over President Obama's investment choices, we lost sight of what Solyndra's collapse really meant: A boon for solar energy in general.

The story begins and ends with China. Sensing vast opportunities in green technology, China began mass-producing solar panels in the last decade in ever greater quantities, flooding the international market. The United States joined Europe in pledging stiff tariffs against Chinese dumping, but not before dozens of Western solar-panel manufacturers went bankrupt. Beijing, because it can do this sort of thing, responded by buying up some of the excess and built lots of solar farms. The country plans to install 10,000 megawatts of solar capacity this year, three times as much as last year.

The intervention seems to be working; prices of solar panels appear to be recovering. And even better, the glut that closed Solyndra has helped drive the overall price of solar energy down to what economists regard as a magic number—about $1 per watt.

In the United States, politicians held up Solyndra as an example of why solar isn't a viable energy solution. But in fact, it may have been just the opposite. What caused the company to go belly-up has also made the solar industry more competitive relative to other forms of energy.

Still, solar panels aren't going to start cropping up on everyone's homes, said Danish statistician and climate skeptic-of-sorts Bjorn Lomborg.*

"The reality is, solar panel costs are only a tiny part of it. You also need installation in individual homes," Lomborg told me. "And the other part of it is, you need to have some sort of backup."

Learning to store solar energy for when it's cloudy has been one of the technology's biggest challenges. Still, the crash of silicon has some analysts predicting that solar energy will actually become a good investment—not just an ambitious one—by as early as 2020, if not sooner in some other countries. Here's a chart of what that might look like (click for an interactive version via Bloomberg).

Energy analysts predict that as the price of solar energy continues to fall, it'll start becoming an attractive investment. (Bloomberg New Energy Finance)

*In his defense, Lomborg isn't a climate-change denier; he simply believes the world would be better off addressing other problems first. 

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I could start with the latest FitzSimmons development that broke my heart, or the Bobbi/Hunter dynamic that brings light to my otherwise dark life, but I think we all know that I can't begin with anything other than the big beard in the room. Ward's backstory has truthfully never been all that interesting to me, even since he became the show's most interesting character when he was outed as a traitor, and I'm not entirely certain I care that much about his brother Christian ( White Collar's Tim DeKay) or their relationship. However, I like the game of "Who's the Bigger Liar?" that we're playing right now. I don't know who to trust, and that fills every scene involving Ward with new tension. Last season, Ward told us that his older brother was a bully who made him torture their younger brother, and this week Christian turned the tables and told Coulson that it's actually Ward who's the terrible human being. Going forward, we have to keep in mind that A) we know Ward is a master manipulator, and B) as a politician, Christian literally makes a living by twisting other people's words and making a lot of false promises while appearing to be the epitome of sincerity. Folks, what we have here is a classic "Wasn't me!" scenario that I think many of you with siblings will recognize. The only difference here is that such conflicts are usually about who broke mom's vase and not, you know, who terrorized their younger brother (or worse). We also know that Ward was locked up in juvie for setting fire to his house while his brother was in it, and that that's where Garrett found him and took him under his wing. What we still don't know is this: Who is Grant Ward? We've spent nearly 30 episodes with the guy, but I don't have a firm grasp on who he is or what he really wants. And I love it, because it keeps me on my toes. I've been conflicted about how I want S.H.I.E.L.D. to handle Ward's storyline this season. There's certainly no denying that he's much, much more interesting when he's breaking bones, slipping out of handcuffs, and assaulting the men assigned to stop him from breaking bones, slipping out of handcuffs, and assaulting people. Having him play Hannibal Lecter in a basement wasn't doing S.H.I.E.L.D. any favors, and breaking him out promises to infuse the show with a renewed sense energy. We still don't know whether we can trust Ward—I'm still inclined to believe his feelings for Skye are genuine and that he honestly doesn't care one bit about Hydra, but that doesn't mean he's a good person or trustworthy on a larger scale. I like that the series is holding off on the possibility of a redemption arc for his character, but even more importantly, I like that it isn't letting him off the hook for his crimes. I'm pretty certain Coulson knew Ward was going to escape, but seeing him lay into Ward this week helped prove to me that he's capable of running S.H.I.E.L.D. I like that playing by the rules for a few months while locked up wasn't enough time to make everyone forget what Ward had done. I don't know what the plan is for Ward, but even though so much of what made Coulson a likable figure in the beginning was tied to his friendly demeanor, sense of honor and duty, and positive outlook, in this job he's got to be a stronger, more diligent, and more skillful leader—and he's been evolving a bit with each episode. "You are not, nor will you ever be on my team," Coulson told Ward before running down just a small list of the reasons why: "You dropped FitzSimmons out of a plane. You murdered Victoria Hand and Eric Koenig. You betrayed every one of us, you deluded son of a bitch." If you didn't fist pump the air after that outburst, then we can't be friends, because it was perfection. And hearing Simmons threaten Ward's life if she should ever see him again was just the icing on the cake. It would have been easy for the show to slide right into a redemption story for Ward this season, and I'm still not even opposed to one down the line, but Ward needs to earn the right to be redeemed first. Handing over bits of information here and there isn't going to prove to anyone that he's changed or that he's worthy of anything. As far as I'm concerned, this is a seasons-long journey for a character who's personally responsible for the rift between Fitz and Simmons right now. It was clear during their brief reunion last week when Simmons returned from her undercover role within Hydra that there was still a lot of emotional baggage between the two former best friends. This week Fitz confirmed what I've been saying since the season began, which is that he viewed Simmons' departure from the team as her abandoning him in his time of need. He thinks she gave up on him, but Simmons insisted to Mack that she left because her presence was the one thing that made him worse. As I first wrote a few weeks ago: Mack only knows this version of Fitz, and he likes this version, which is why their friendship is so important right now. He helps Fitz both in the lab and outside of it in ways that Simmons cannot, because there aren't any expectations that Fitz will suddenly be someone he's not. Simmons knows this, and yet she's still unable to put aside her own expectations for Fitz. It's a problem seen in the real world every day with people who've suffered some sort of trauma, but people do get through it. It's painful to know the one thing Fitz loves and wants nearby is the one thing that threatens his recovery, but it had to have been similarly difficult for Simmons to admit that she's the problem. Their relationship is the emotional bedrock of the entire series, and in its fractured state it's providing some wonderful angst to counteract the action provided by May, Bobbi, and Hunter, but I do hope that one day Fitz will be the man he once was. If that's not possible, here's hoping Simmons can accept that, and that we can accept it, too. I would, I think, like to see Simmons tell him the truth about why she left, though. It might hurt like a bitch, but it might also be helpful to hear. He still thinks she left because he confessed his feelings and she didn't feel the same way. The truth will set you free, Simmons! All in all, "A Fractured House" was another fun and balanced hour of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a line of (mostly) very solid episodes. The Mockingbird/Hunter dynamic is electric, but also light enough to counteract the emotional anchors of FitzSimmons, Ward, and Skye; I can't help but wish that in addition to making all those movie announcements, Marvel and ABC had promoted Adrianne Palicki to series regular. She's stepped into the role of a S.H.I.E.L.D. team member with ease, the way Mockingbird herself slips into and out of various spy situations. In fact, all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cast additions this season have been on-point in terms of what they bring to the table. Now that Ward has escaped, I worry a bit about how all of the show's various storylines will intersect and whether future episodes will suffer under the weight of so many characters, but I currently don't have any reason to believe that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't up to the task of juggling them all. 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