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Solar energy advocate

May 25, 2011--Richard M. Swanson, recipient of the 2011 Karl W. Böer Solar Energy Medal of Merit, passionately believes that solar energy will continue to grow as a clean energy source in a world that needs to seriously reduce its carbon emissions.

Swanson, president emeritus and co-founder of SunPower Corp., discussed his views on the future of solar energy during the Karl W. Böer Energy Medal of Merit award ceremony held Tuesday afternoon, May 24, at the Gore Recital Hall in the Roselle Center for the Arts.

Presented by Böer and University of Delaware President Patrick Harker, the award is given every other year and honors its namesake, who is the founder of UD’s Institute of Energy Conversion (IEC) and a distinguished scientist in the field of solar cells.

In accepting the award, Swanson recalled his emerging interest in the field and the importance of Böer’s pioneering efforts at the IEC.

“It was 1973, and I was sitting in a line waiting for gas,” Swanson said. “I also was thinking about solar energy research.”

Swanson noted that at that time, the IEC was the only place with a significant commitment to research in the field of solar energy cells.

“They were the beacon for photovoltaics in this country and around the world at that time,” Swanson said. “Being here today has a really deep meaning for me and I want to say, ‘Thank you, Karl, for your pioneering work.’”

Increased production and lower cost per panel continue to make solar energy emerge as a viable renewable energy option, Swanson said.

“Over the last decade the annual production of solar modules has increased ten-fold while price of solar cell modules has fallen by half in the same time period,” Swanson said. “We are getting the production and the price that we thought would occur at this point.”

With this increased efficiency, the center of gravity in solar energy has moved from the engineering side to the manufacturing side, Swanson said.

“Environmentalists are paying attention to us and asking what does it mean to the environment to build a very large solar panel production plant,” Swanson said. “They realize the importance of large solar power plants and they realize it can be done without damaging the environment too much.”

Ultimately, renewable energy advocates want the world to transition to a low carbon future without experiencing catastrophic climate changes, Swanson said.

“In my view we have to do this in 90 years,” Swanson said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Swanson advocates paraphrasing the way economists talk about the need to have a "soft landing" when coming out of a recession. “We don’t want to run out of oil and coal before we have this renewable energy ready,” Swanson said. “We don’t want to have climate change catastrophically. We want a soft landing.”

Swanson concluded by saying he is glad to be part of the solar energy community that pioneers like Böer made possible. “It has been a fantastic experience and I’m so heartened that people still feel the same way today and that here are so many young people entering the field,” Swanson said. “Solar energy is still in its early days, and these are very exciting days.”

A reception was held following the ceremony in the lobby of the Roselle Center for the Arts.

Article by Jerry Rhodes