Electric-car Tesla Motors' (NASDAQ:TSLA) autopilot technology is already well beyond similar technology from other auto manufacturers. The California-based company's "Autosteer" is the only auto steering technology that works at highway speeds, and its autopilot can even change lanes with a tap of a blinker. Apparently, however, this technology isn't advanced enough for Tesla. The company is now ramping up its autopilot team "to achieve generalized full autonomy," according to a tweet last week by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla: We need "hardcore software engineers"
"[T]he founding team had no intention of turning to Detroit for advice on how to build a car company," said author Ashlee Vance in biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, referring to the company's earlier years. The auto and energy storage company has remained just as stubborn as of late, with Musk admitting on several occasions that he pays little attention to what competitors are doing.
Tesla's persistence in carving its own path is probably most evident in the company's autopilot efforts. Rapidly rolling out the world's most advanced production-car autopilot features to its vehicle fleet, Tesla has suddenly leaped into a leading role for auto steering technology. And Tesla isn't slowing down. Asking for applicants to email Tesla, Musk says the company is "looking for hardcore software engineers" as it makes "generalized full autonomy" a "super high priority."
LONDON — After standing dormant for 34 years, the Bankside Power Station was reborn last month. The onetime oil-fired, soot-spewing electric power plant, shut down and then converted into the Tate Modern, the world’s most popular contemporary art museum, is back producing energy again.
Its roof has been coated with solar panels, which soak up the sun’s rays even on a cloudy London afternoon and help illuminate the avant-garde works in the galleries below.
But rather than a shiny vision of modernity, the solar installation may become a sad remnant of a lost future. With breathtaking abruptness, the British government has in recent months slashed its support for solar power and other renewable forms of energy, leaving a once-promising industry with grim prospects and throwing into doubt the country’s commitment to clean power.
The moves have baffled environmentalists, business leaders and even many government allies. Britain has long been in the vanguard of efforts to combat global warming. It has been expected to play a leading role — alongside the Obama administration — in efforts to secure a package of tough reforms at the U.N. climate change summit in Paris, which kicks off at the end of this month.
[As appetite for electricity soars, the world keeps turning to coal]
But the decision to cut hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of support for renewable energy at home, with a planned 87 percent reduction in subsidies for solar power, threatens to undermine Britain’s international authority, while showing just how difficult it can be for a developed nation to break a centuries-long addiction to fossil fuels.
“Britain’s been leading the way for years,” said Frans van den Heuvel, chief executive of Solarcentury, the company responsible for the pro bono installation of the Tate’s rooftop panels. “But now the government looks like it wants to kill the industry before it can stand on its own two feet.”
Britain on Wednesday became the first major economy to propose a phase-out of coal-fired power plants, saying it intends to do so by 2025. But the government’s plan relies heavily on a switch to gas rather than cleaner alternatives.
Despite its support until now for alternative sources, the United Kingdom still ranks close to the bottom of the European Union in its use of renewables. In 2014, it used fossil fuels to produce more than 60 percent of its electricity, half again as much as the E.U. average. Nuclear power accounted for an additional 19 percent.
It’s not just the subsidy cuts that are hurting renewable energy in Britain. Cheap fossil fuels have made it tough for solar and wind to compete, even as the technology behind green energy matures and costs tumble. Van den Heuvel estimated that solar power is at least several years away from matching the price of more conventional fuels.
[World without power: 1.3 billion are living in the dark]
But time may be running out: The International Energy Agency reported last week that despite progress toward cleaner energy, the world still requires “a major course correction” to avoid a potentially catastrophic 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise above average temperatures last seen in the 19th century, when coal-fired Britain launched the world into the industrial era.
Britain is not alone in reducing support for renewable energy. Countries across the West are weaning those industries from the subsidies that have made them competitive with dirtier fuels such as oil, gas and coal. Germany and Spain have scaled back ambitious incentive programs, citing higher than expected public costs. The major tax credit for solar power in the United States is due to expire at the end of next year.
In most places, however, the process has been gradual and somewhat predictable, giving businesses the chance to adjust.
In Britain, the changes have been dramatic and came with little warning. As other countries bolster their green commitments in the run-up to Paris, a top U.N. scientist last month singled out Britain for sending “a very perverse signal” by eliminating support for onshore wind energy and proposing to slash solar subsidies by nearly 90 percent.
The government has been vague about likely savings, but officials say cuts will help to significantly reduce a projected $2 billion cost overrun in the renewable energy incentive program over the next five years.
But the moves could also mean hundreds of thousands fewer green-energy installations. As customers have canceled orders and investors have fled, British renewable energy firms have laid off workers or redirected them to projects overseas. Several have gone bust this fall.
“There’s no better way to disrupt an industry than to create constant uncertainty,” said Howard Johns, whose firm, Southern Solar, went bankrupt last month. “And that’s exactly what we’ve seen.”
Government officials say the time had come to allow renewable energy firms to live or die on their own.
“We have a duty to protect consumers and keep bills as low as possible while we reduce emissions,” said the energy secretary, Amber Rudd, in a speech explaining the moves. “Decarbonization has to be sensitive to the impact it has on people’s pockets.”
But environmentalists cite subsidies and tax breaks for oil, coal and gas that they say have helped keep traditional-fuel prices artificially low, making it harder for renewables to compete. Solar power costs roughly $120 per megawatt-hour in Britain, compared with $75 for fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, subsidies for the renewables industry make up only a small component of utility bills — just over 4 percent. By the government’s own estimation, the solar subsidy cuts won’t save the average consumer much. Yet they will dramatically affect the calculus for homeowners who are thinking of installing solar: The time it takes for the panels to pay for themselves will go from 10 years to 25 or more.
Former top British officials say it’s hard to understand the government’s moves as anything other than a bid to protect the fossil fuel and utility industries at the expense of solar and wind firms.
“It’s a disaster,” said Ed Davey, who until recently was Britain’s secretary for energy and climate change. “The changes are totally ideological, extremely shortsighted and will cost the government and the country more in the long run.”
He lost his job in May when Britain voted for a Conservative government, turning out Davey and his fellow Liberal Democrats, who had been the Tories’ junior partners in a coalition government for the previous five years.
[What the big U.S.-China climate deal means for Obama’s last two years]
But few expected the sort of wholesale policy change that came with the new Tory-only government.
Unlike in the United States, politics in this country has long been marked byrelative consensus on climate change. Margaret Thatcher, the matriarch of modern British conservatism, was among the first world leaders to raise the alarm on global warming. Prime Minister David Cameron came into office in 2010 promising the “greenest government ever” and drove a dog sled across a Norwegian glacier to prove his environmental mettle.
Even after the May election, the Conservatives continued to flaunt their green credentials, with Davey’s successor, Rudd, vowing to “unleash a new solar revolution” across Britain.
Solar panels are visible on residential roofs in Chatham, England. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)But the policy changes that followed could instead set back British renewable energy for years, according to industry observers. For the first time in more than a decade, Britain in September crashed out of Ernst & Young’s rankings of the top 10 countries for renewable energy investment, with the global professional services firm concluding that the government was inflicting “death by a thousand cuts.”
The changes began in June with the elimination of subsidies for onshore wind farms. That shift, at least, was unsurprising: Conservative backbenchers had demanded it for years, blaming giant white turbines for marring views across the once-pristine British countryside. Of all the renewable energies, wind power is also the closest to reaching price parity with more traditional fuels — meaning it needs less support.
“We are reaching the limits of what is affordable and what the public is prepared to accept,” Rudd told Parliament in June when she announced the cuts.
If the decision on wind power was predictable, an 87 percent reduction in solar subsidies caught nearly everyone off guard when the government proposed it a month later.
[British politicians decide the climate change debate is over]
Solar power remains widely popular in Britain, with relatively unobtrusive rooftop panels raising little public ire. Prominent Conservatives, including Cameron’s climate change adviser and London Mayor Boris Johnson, have criticized the move.
But the government has shown little willingness to bend, rolling out a slew of other changes that experts say amount to a significant weakening of its carbon-reduction strategy: It eliminated a program to promote energy efficiency in homes, reduced the incentive to buy fuel-efficient cars and forced businesses that use renewable energy to pay a carbon levy — a move that Friends of the Earth equated to “putting an alcohol tax on apple juice.”
Bob Ward, policy director for the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said some of the moves may make sense in isolation. But he said the cumulative effect signaled that Britain “isn’t as committed as it should be” to addressing climate change. That could hurt the country’s clout at the Paris conference, where Britain is expected to help lead the push for more ambitious carbon-reduction targets.
Why the world still uses coalCoal is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a major climate-change contributor. So why are we still using it? For the same reasons we always have: It’s cheap, plentiful, easy to transport and easy to acquire. (Jorge Ribas and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)So, too, could Rudd’s admission this month that Britain is on pace to miss itsE.U.-mandated commitment to supply 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. “I recognize we don’t have the right policies” to meet the target, Rudd told a parliamentary hearing.
Van den Heuvel, whose company supplied the solar panels at the Tate, said that his firm was strong enough to weather the government’s cuts but that he was shifting his focus overseas.
“There’s no question solar will be the biggest power-generator globally,” the Solarcentury chief executive said in an interview on the museum’s roof. “The question is whether it’s U.K. companies who are making it happen.”
[In Britain, era of ‘green Conservative’ withers]
Even if it is, Howard Johns’s company, Southern Solar, won’t be among them. A former environmental activist who “lived in trees,” Johns founded the firm 13 years ago after deciding that it wasn’t enough to protest. “I wanted to find a way to actually do something positive,” he said.
For a decade, the company doubled in size every year. It ultimately had eight offices across Britain with 100 employees who installed solar panels atop homes, businesses and schools. Johns had plans to expand to Kenya and Rwanda. But his employees have all been laid off and the offices closed.
“It’s been a horrendous experience. We’d invested a lot of money in growing a business. And it was all destroyed by knee-jerk changes in policy,” Johns said.
But in the long term, he is undeterred.
“Solar is the future,” he said. “And it’s not going away.”
Think about this for a second: If California was a nation, it would rank 6th in the world in installed solar capacity. Wow. That’s pretty amazing – and one of the key takeaways from the latest U.S. Solar Market Insight Report, which was just released by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Today, California has more solar assets than nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Australia and Belgium, becoming the first state in the U.S. to top 10,000 megawatts (MW) of installed solar capacity.
California made history in the first quarter of this year by installing 718 MW of solar energy, raising the state’s total capacity to 10,649 MW – enough to power nearly 2.6 million homes. The report went on to point out that California had big increases in Q1 across all solar sectors. Of the new capacity added, 231 MW were residential, 88 MW were commercial and 399 MW were utility scale. Together, these installations represented a $1.7 billion investment across the state in the first quarter alone.
When it comes to creating clean energy jobs and protecting the environment, California is showing the world how to get the job done. To put the state’s remarkable progress in some context, today California has 10 times more installed solar capacity than the entire nation had in 2007. We congratulate Gov. Brown, his administration, legislative leaders and the people of California for being at the forefront of America’s efforts to create a vibrant and growing clean energy economy.
California’s explosive growth in solar is due, in large part, to stable and effective public policies such as the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Net Energy Metering (NEM). Nationwide, solar remains the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the United States, and it is supported by 9 out of 10 Americans.
In the first quarter of this year, California benefitted from the completion of the massive Desert Sunlight project, developed by First Solar and located in the Mojave Desert. Desert Sunlight has the capacity to generate 550 MW of electricity, which is enough to power 160,000 California homes.
The residential market also continued to flourish in Q1, with installed system prices dropping 4 percent year-over-year – and down nearly 50 percent since 2010. The upswing in residential installations is expected to continue in the foreseeable future, especially in light of a recent report by the California Energy Commission, which shows that more than a quarter of all new homes being built in Southern California are being constructed with solar energy systems. Presently, there are 2,226 solar companies at work throughout the state, employing 54,700 Californians.
Any way you look at it, the sun is shining brightly these days on the Golden State.
The U.S. solar industry employs 174,000 Americans nationwide, but this number is so much more than a piece of data. This number represents the people who are directly behind an energy revolution, whose stories encapsulate the very essence of solar’s character.
174,000 are transforming America.
The solar workforce is diversifying our nation’s power grid — through the rooftops of your homes, your community’s solar gardens, churches and businesses, and through your utility’s large-scale solar plants.
Their work updating America’s electric grid with 21st Century technologies, like solar, is offering consumers more choices and diversifying our power sources.
But what 174,000 does not immediately represent is the growing diversity of people behind the number and their different stories. According to The Solar Foundation’s most recent Jobs Census, solar is for everyone.
When it comes to both ethnic and gender diversity, the solar industry surpasses the oil, gas and coal industries. For example, at 16.3 percent, the solar industry’s employment rate forLatino or Hispanic individuals is 3 percentage points higher than the entire U.S. employment rate for Latinos or Hispanics. Women also account for 21.6 percent of the solar industry’s total workforce.
With the ever-growing demand for solar energy now higher than ever, the workforce is projected to grow by more than 36,000 by the end of the year alone. And the industry is ramping up its training and recruitment opportunities to ensure its workforce continues to be as diverse as its consumers.
In fact, the solar industry is committed to becoming the most diverse energy sector in the nation, as Americans from all walks of life take advantage of the benefits of solar and its cascading price tag.
Solar already employs a higher percentage rate of veterans than the total U.S. workforce, but the industry upped the ante this spring by committing to having 50,000 U.S. veteransworking in solar by 2020.
Our industry cannot keep its commitment to provide well-paying jobs for more Americans if Congress makes a wrong decision on a looming federal policy. The solar investment tax credit (ITC) provides a 30 percent tax credit to commercial and residential solar users, which has helped the solar industry crack 22 gigawatts for the first time in history this summer.
Under the policy, total U.S. solar capacity is expected to double over the next two years. But if the ITC is allowed to expire from its current levels on Dec. 31, 2016, 100,000 jobs could be lost nationwide.
There is more work to do and more Americans who are eager to help solar drive America to its new clean energy future. Tell Congress 174,000 isn’t enough.
I'm your go to solar energy expert here to guide you step-by-step through all of your solar options.
James The Solar Energy Expert