Editors\u2019 note: This new feature identifies trends by connecting the dots of what appear to be unrelated events. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic drop in photovoltaic technology price tags. How low PV costs go and how much the commercial and residential solar industries expand are dependent on several variables--near and far. They include public subsidies, the price of Chinese arrays, desert tortoises, and panel conversion efficiency. The fall in panel prices has helped fuel a literal land rush to build massive solar projects on public lands in California\u2019s deserts. It\u2019s also driven conversions of massive solar thermal projects to photovoltaic technology. State-permitted projects indicating plans to switch technologies, according to the California Energy Commission, include K Road\u2019s 664 MW Calico, AES Solar\u2019s 709 MW Imperial Valley, Next Era\u2019s 250 MW Beacon, and part of the 1,000 MW Blythe proposed by Solar Millennium, which declared bankruptcy last week. If some or all of these projects are built, remaining is the thorny and pricey issue of getting the remote power to the grid. But while some are in doubt, at least seven major solar projects are under construction (see story on page 2). Also on the bright side are prospects for greater solar power output. Installed panels\u2019 average efficiency is less than 20 percent. There are new concentrating photovoltaic technologies that achieve 30-40 percent energy conversion rates. Also good for the consumer pocketbook are cheap Chinese solar panels. But U.S. competitors and politicians complain they harm domestic solar panel manufacturers. About half the photovoltaic panels in California and the U.S. are said to be cheap ones \u201cdumped\u201d by China. Sales of Chinese PV panels in the U.S were reported to have grown from $21 million in 2005 to $2.65 billion last year, according to the New York Times. Although many national companies sold panels below the cost of production to gain market share--including those now bankrupt, like Solyndra--the Commerce Department slapped a tariff on Chinese panels a few weeks ago as a warning. Although it was a fairly mild tariff that has not noticeably impacted U.S. companies that buy Chinese solar arrays, Commerce has threatened to increase the tariff next month, which would drive up the cost of half the panels sold here. Closer to home are state policies governing which farm land is more suitable to producing solar energy or agricultural goods. There also is the growing concern over how many threatened tortoises and other desert critters should be sacrificed in the name of solar power. These two issues likely will impact individual projects more than the industry as a whole, as will the decision over whether the state or local agencies permit major photovoltaic projects. Currently, the Energy Commission\u2019s jurisdiction is limited to thermal projects--not photovoltaics. However, a law was passed last year to allow it to re-permit a solar thermal project that changes course and plans to use photovoltaic technology. An industry plus is the trend of solar companies to reduce project impacts by shifting production practices to use safer materials and emphasize recycling and lower water use, according to a report by As You Sow, released last month. The study builds on the organization\u2019s Cleantech Initiative that previously focused on electronics manufacturing. As You Sow plans to continue researching the sustainability of other renewable energy technologies, such as wind energy. It is largely good news at the federal front for photovoltaics. Tax incentives lead to higher panel production and lower costs because of the expected economy of scale. The federal investment tax credit, which can cover 30 percent of a project\u2019s costs, aims to spur private investment via lower tax liability for solar generation investors. It is around until the end of 2016. There also is accelerated depreciation for qualifying projects and limited federal tax incentives under the Section 48C Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit. This credit has jump-started recent investments in new domestic plants and expanded facilities, but it\u2019s currently oversubscribed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.