There are spectacular strides and innovations being made across the globe, in the USA and right here on the South Coast.
The solar power industry—along with all renewable energy industries -- has gotten a lot of bad press recently, with the bankruptcy of Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, but it would be a serious mistake to turn our backs on this rapidly growing (and increasingly affordable) source of non-polluting domestic renewable energy.
Myth #1 – the US solar industry has fallen behind that of China.
It’s true that many of the solar PV (photovoltaic) panels being installed in this country were manufactured in China, where massive government subsidies support the manufacturing companies – but (drum roll, please…), those Chinese panels rely on solar PV components manufactured here in America. In 2010, 99% of US solar PV components were exported to China and Germany, a positive trade flow close to $2 billion.
Myth #2 – the Obama administration made a huge mistake allowing the Department of Energy (DOE) to issue loan guarantees to solar companies like Solyndra.
While it’s true that some of these companies failed (which is not at all uncommon with start-up industries), there’s a lot more contributing to renewable energy company failures that just bad judgment on the part of the DOE. For instance, Ener1, a Midwest manufacturer of lithium ion batteries needed to jumpstart the introduction of hybrid/electric cars, is in danger of failing because not enough hybrid/electric cars are being produced in the US! Meanwhile, previous (Republican) administrations have provided trillions of dollars in loan guarantees and subsidies for the nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas industries, so it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black…
And then there’s the elephant in the room that fossil-fuel companies and government lobbyists don’t want to acknowledge: if average homeowners are able to drop off the centralized power grid by using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power in their own backyards, that means that everyday people will become energy producers, not just energy consumers – and excess power from this “distributed generation” can be sold back to the utility grid. This prospect must be sending shivers through corporate boardrooms…
And the up-front costs for installing solar panels on your home or business become more affordable every month. Numerous tax incentives and rebates offered by the federal, state and local governments, along with 0% heat loan and leasing options, make solar PV power a very attractive home improvement and money-saving measure. And the technology itself becomes more cost-effective and innovative every year.
Here comes the sun…
Our Sun bombards the Earth with enough solar energy every hour to provide for all of humanity’s energy needs for a year. The technological challenge is figuring out how to capture, store and transmit that energy into useable electrical power.
If any of you have ever grown vegetables in a cold frame, then you understand the basic principle of utilizing solar energy. If you’ve ever worn a black T-shirt on a sunny day, you understand solar energy (someone wearing a white T-shirt won’t feel as hot as you do.) In very simplistic terms, most residential solar PV panels are composed of silicon-based chips encased in flat, blackened glass panels in rows (or an “array”) that are all attached to an inverter device, which converts the sun’s rays into AC current you can then use to power your home, property, vehicle, etc..
Of course, living close to the equator or in a sunny location like the American Southwest means you can capture more of the sun’s rays every day, but with the rapid advances in solar PV technology, even not-so-sunny places like New England or northern Europe can still maximize solar PV technology to keep their lights burning, minimize dependence on nuclear power or fossil fuels, and help slow climate change.
For instance, Germany produces close to 20% of its electricity needs by having developed a “distributed generation” system of rooftop solar PV arrays that tie into the existing grid infrastructure. In the Netherlands, solar PV cells have been embedded in the pavement of their many miles of bicycles paths, powering nearby traffic lights and street lamps, while utilizing already-in-use space. In sunny Spain, Onyx Solar has developed building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products such as PV glass for windows, outside “curtain” walls and even carports whose roofs generate power needed for hybrid/electric cars.
And speaking of Germany, a not-very-sunny country (but a leader in utilizing solar PV power), the average annual household electricity consumption is about 4,000 kilowatts (kWh). Using fossil-fuel or nuclear-generated electricity costs at least $1,000 a year, whereas solar-generated electricity costs nothing after the initial installation costs – and it’s virtually maintenance free (no moving parts), as well as warranteed by the installation company for generous periods – and this is all after government rebates and tax incentives. The average American household uses a lot more electricity every year (mine uses @ 6.8 kWh), but comparable savings here are available by getting “off the grid.”
And one of the best features of localized “distributed generation” is that there is less efficiency loss due to long-distance transmission from a centralized power plant – and fewer blackouts.
Solar PV panels are already powering highway signs across the US, providing power on spacecraft and mobile field equipment in the military. And increasingly, budget-squeezed municipalities and school districts are installing solar PV arrays on rooftops and landfills to cut operating costs and save jobs.
New Bedford recently became the first-in-the-state municipality to launch a solar program which could save the city as much as $10 million and power 1,500 homes, as well as schools and public buildings. ConEdison will be installing solar panels throughout the city through 2013, which could eventually generate up to 10 megawatts of electricity.
Living “off the grid”
“Grid parity” is the point where it costs you the same to generate your own electricity as it would cost to buy it from, say, NSTAR.
With recent developments in solar PV technology, we’ve reached the potential for grid parity, and it will soon become the cheapest form of generating electricity around the world. If developing countries could become power-sufficient without the infrastructure needed for fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants, myriad social, financial and political issues could be addressed in one fell swoop.
This may sound like “future science” pipedreams to those of us who remember rooftops with TV antennas (instead of solar panel arrays), rotary phones and 8-track tapes, but it’s real, it’s rapidly coming to a neighborhood near you, and it’s going to revolutionize how we live, Washington and Wall Street notwithstanding.
When you think that the Wright brothers achieved human flight only in 1903 and then we landed on the Moon in 1969, then it’s not so hard to envision that solar PV technology is a comparable technological leap in human evolution.
Solar on the South Coast
And “green technologies” are becoming more and more common throughout the South Coast.
For instance, Whaling City Transit of Westport has solar panels on its main plant roof and has seen its electricity costs plummet from about $500 per month to $500 per year. (In addition, they recycle their fleet’s used motor oil to heat the building, which saves them disposal costs, in addition to heating costs!)
But here’s the best news – Konarka Industries (www.konarka.com, a spin-off of UMass/Lowell) is a recognized world leader in the development of cutting-edge thin-film solar PV technology – and their manufacturing facility is in New Bedford!
By “repurposing” the shut-down Polaroid facility that was already set up for handling thin-film manufacturing, Konarka was able to move in at a much reduced start-up cost, re-hire many former Polaroid employees and start producing the newest generation of solar PV products.
Flexible, lightweight and able to be colored, imprinted or molded to just about any function, Konarka’s thin-film solar PV “Power Plastic” products have been used to electrify bus-stop shelters in San Francisco and imbedded into luggage and carry-on bags that can recharge your cell-phone or laptop while you’re on the go.
In the interest of researching this article, I had my little house in Fairhaven (under 800 sq. ft., not counting a finished basement) evaluated for solar PV panels. I had cut down five trees in my south-facing backyard last year (so I could grow vegetables in raised gardens) and things are looking up. I’m extremely frugal and, at one point, was paying less than $60/month for electricity.
But the bills kept creeping up, not matter what conservation measures I took (no AC or dishwasher, new EnergyStar refrigerator, solar/sensor outside lighting, etc.), so I contacted several solar PV installation firms, including Second Generation Energy (www.SGEGroup.com) in Hopedale MA, after researching many solar installers last year.
One attraction was that they are authorized dealers/installers of the newest-generation Sun Power panels (www.sunpowercorp.com) from California, which are not only smaller and convert almost 20% of captured sunlight (the highest rating right now in this part of the US) than do “traditional” solar panels, but they also have micro-inverters attached to each panel, instead of each panel being hooked up to a central inverter next to my electricity panel in the basement (which is less energy-efficient) – and they come with a 25-year warranty. Plus Second Generation Energy will handle permits, the rebates, tax documentation and loan/leasing paperwork, should I choose to go that route.
So, what are the costs – and benefits?
The size of your roof determines how large a solar array you can install, and the amount of electricity you want to generate determines how many panels you want installed.
Do you want to generate all or only part of your annual electricity needs, or do you want to produce more than you need and sell the excess back to your local utility grid (called net metering)?
Right now, the federal tax rebate for installing solar power is 30% of the installation costs. There are further state and local rebates and incentives – the current Commonwealth Solar Program grants up to $3,750 to qualifying Massachusetts residents, as well as a tax credit of up to $1,000 on installation and labor costs.
In addition, public utilities are required to show that they produce a certain amount of electricity using renewable sources energy – or else pay a fine to the state. They can meet these requirements by “buying” Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) from homeowners who install solar panels, which means more money in your pocket. And then there are 0% heat loans and leasing options.
In addition, by generating your own electricity, you’re not worried about rising costs of utility-generated power. An average size (5 kW) home solar power system can generate close to $40,000 in energy savings over 20 years. Plus, according to a government study, homes with solar power sell twice as fast as homes without solar.
Where an you learn more?
As with any major purchase or home improvement investment, you need to do your homework beforehand.
Ask your electrician or contractor to recommend solar installers they’d use themselves. A lot of fly-by-night folks have jumped onto the solar PV installation bandwagon, and you don’t want to waste your time (or money!!) just because your cousin Vinny’s girlfriend’s cousin’s neighbor says he’s qualified.
A reputable firm will perform a detailed on-site assessment at no charge – scammers will try to get you to commit by giving you a quote on the telephone after checking Google Earth.
Learn more at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (www.masscec.com) or the state’s Department of Energy Resources (DOER) at www.mass.gov or find out more about rebates, tax credits and other financial incentives at www.dsirusa.org.
Get at least two proposal/quotes, and don’t be afraid to go outside your town to find good companies. Check out regional firms like New England Renewable Energy (www.NERenewable.com), or small start-up firms like Cape Cod Solar Energy Systems (www.e2solarcapecod) or an independent energy consultant like Clean Green Cities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, light up your life! Start by joining the South Coast Energy Challenge – reduce your household expenses and energy consumption as well as your carbon footprint – and get a free home energy assessment through MassSave. To get started, go to www.southcoastenergychallenge.org.