A Clemson University professor was recognized by the White House this week for four decades of work promoting solar energy.
Rajendra Singh, Clemson's D. Houser Banks Professor in the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, began looking at solar as a graduate student in 1974, right after oil prices spiked and the nation experienced its first energy crisis. Motorists often waited in line to fill up their tank.
Little changed at first, partly because of federal policies but mostly because solar simply wasn't economically competitive. "The solar cells were very expensive," he said, "but then the market forces started working in favor of solar, and it's to the point where today, solar is to the point where you cannot stop it."
In 1980, he predicted silicon would be the dominant photo voltaic material, and the decades not only provided him correct, but as scientists and the free market began working with the material, the economic gap began to close.
Singh flew to Washington this week and was one of nine people accepting a White House award as a "Champion of Change."
"Based on Dr. Singh's contributions, several companies are selling fast-processing furnaces for manufacturing photo voltaic modules," the White House said.
Singh said volume manufacturing is driving down the cost of solar panels, and solar also has been helped because the cost of oil and nuclear power remain relatively high.
Singh currently is pursuing a new mission. He recently helped lead a conference in Charleston where about 75 scientists and manufacturers discussed how to increase the use of direct current, which is what solar panels produce and also what many modern electronic gadgets, like cell phones, require.
The debate over the two kinds of currents dates back more than a century and once pitted inventors Thomas Edison against Nikola Tesla.
The electricity coursing over modern electric grids is alternate current, but Singh said that current is not as efficient.
"We are wasting 70 percent of our energy," he said. "We don't need to use AC. We need to use DC."
President Barack Obama noted in his State of the Union address that the pace of solar deployment has picked up and that 2013 was a record-breaking year for new solar installations.
In 2008, solar generated about 1.2 gigawatts across the country. Last year, it had increased 11 times that, to 13 gigawatts. In the United States, a home or business goes solar every four minutes. South Carolina lawmakers have not passed legislation that would help solar spread in this relatively sunny state, partly because utilities have expressed concern how the change would affect them and their customers.
Singh declined to discuss that stalemate but noted as the public becomes more aware of solar's benefit, federal and state policies will fall in line.
"Whether you're a Republican or Democrat or independent, everybody wants the same thing," such as lower electrical costs and more jobs, he said. "Everybody wants to build this country."
Singh said while some with vested interests will resist changing from the status quo, "once the public interest takes over, they cannot do anything."