Solar Panels - Tapping the Power of "We"
by Craig Severance
This past week I was on a panel at the Clean Power Finance Forum in Glenwood Springs, CO, and the question arose - why are solar panels becoming so popular? The discussion was electrified with many possibilities for renewable energy here in Western Colorado, but most especially solar power.
Western Colorado is one of the sunniest parts of the U.S, and has already seen hundreds of solar electric and solar hot water systems installed on homes, businesses, and public buildings. However, solar enthusiasm is not just a function of geography. Even much cloudier parts of the world, such as Germany, are experiencing widespread installations of solar panels.
The excitement for solar cannot be explained entirely by economics. There are many other "green" ways to generate electricity that are less expensive than solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Wind farms on the Great Plains beat PV hands-down in any comparison of cost per kWh. Micro-hydro turbines hold great promise, especially in a mountainous region with water literally pouring down from higher elevations. Geothermal electric generation and district heating can be very cost-effective where that resource exists, such as Glenwood Springs, CO, where the workshop was held. Even among solar-only alternatives, it seems that at least for now, solar thermal electric farms are likely to beat solar PV farms for many large utility projects.
Why, then, is there such enthusiasm for solar? The answer becomes clear when you answer this question from the standpoint of the individual homeowner or business owner. It is not just a question of what technology is adopted, but who can implement it.
There are now millions of people who want to help solve the combined global warming, energy dependence, and economic problems, and people are looking for something they can do to reduce their own energy use and cut their own utility bills.
Unless you own a large ranch like T. Boone Pickens, you are not going to be able to put a wind farm in your backyard. You can't drill down below your property and generate electricity from hot rocks. Unless you are a farmer, you won't be burining methane to generate clean energy. However, the sun shines on us all, and it might very well be possible to install a solar hot water and solar electric system.
Tapping into the solar resource, therefore, is a way of tapping into The Power of "We", as in "We Can Solve It", or even "Yes, We Can." Solar energy is something that a great many of us can do,
While energy efficiency may help us reduce our own energy use by a large percentage, adding a solar energy system can take us the rest of the way to a net zero impact. There is something very satisfying and secure about knowing your own utility bills are now just $10/month. (For an example of how this can also make economic sense for a business utility customer, see here.)
Tapping into "The Power of We" changes the economics because it brings more people to the table. For instance, while a utility company might fund about half the cost of a solar electric system, the customer must fund the other half. The government now also helps with tax credits, but this is not a free ride. People still have to spend their own money first. Many are willing to do this, because they are doing their part to reduce net energy consumption.
We still need utility companies to develop large utility-scale wind and solar farms, geothermal, and other renewable sources. However, if there are ways to bring more people into this effort, the more the better.
We have a very long way to go to reduce our overall fossil fuel consumption below critical levels. Encouraging individual families and businesses to use the sunlight falling on their rooftops and yards to power their own energy use can be an important part of the solution.
It is something We can do.
This article was originally published on March 9, 2009.