Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Publication Date: 03/1/2009
Archive >  March 2009 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Solar Power Gets Better
Walter Salm, Editor
In a much simpler era, I recall with some nostalgia, the horse-drawn bakery wagon that came down our street every day, stopping in the middle of the block where the driver would ring a prize-fight-like bell. This generated a Pavlovian reaction among the neighborhood kids. I didn't salivate, but instead would immediately run to my mother and beg her for a nickel so I could buy one of those giant black-and-white cookies that I loved so much. I was five, and Hitler was still two years away from invading France. We don't use horses much to pull wagons any more; instead we burn precious oil, which has become the centerpiece of today's economy, good and bad.

Energy is in the forefront of just about everyone's fiscal planning these days. While oil and gas prices have stabilized at a reasonable price level for now, last year's rampaging fuel prices have already inflicted their damage on the economy, on businesses forced to pay exorbitant energy surcharges, and to consumers who suddenly found themselves looking for cheaper forms of transportation.

One of the bright spots in this sea of burgeoning energy costs is a very widespread form of sustainable energy — the sun. Solar energy harvesting has become a major part of just about everyone's energy plans these days, ranging from a simple 3 kilowatt installation on the roof of a motor home, to acres and acres of solar collectors gathering rays for an industrial complex. Solar panels are especially prevalent in California, where rates are closing in on 20-cent per kilowatt hour — a rate that can bankrupt businesses as well as private citizens. Solar energy brings a new dimension to the table: free energy, after 3 to 4 years for paydown of the capital cost of hardware and installation. Solar panels have an estimated operational lifetime of 25 years, so this means 20 years plus of free energy if you finance your own solar plant.

Another way of doing it is to contract with a solar power provider; the company comes in and installs their solar panels on your roof, in your yard, perhaps covering over a company parking lot to protect the cars from the harsh effects of the desert sunlight while drinking in all those precious rays and converting them to usable energy. Arizona already has many covered parking lots, but so far, few if any of them have solar panels on top. It's certainly an area that's ripe for development.

If you want solar for your home, the company will come in and cover your roof with solar panels and install the system so you draw solar power whenever you need it. If your energy needs exceeded the solar capacity, you draw power from the grid. Any solar power that you don't use goes back into the grid. You don't pay for the solar installation; it's free. What you pay is an electric bill for the energy you use — and this bill is fixed at the same kWh rate you are currently paying the power utility, and will remain fixed at that same rate, usually for 5 years. This can be done for businesses as well, both large and small, and it's an excellent way of going "green" and saving money at the same time.

There are no gimmicks to solar power; there are no carbon exchanges or trading; there are no negative fallout effects. The actual cost per kWh generated can vary widely from a best case of 3 cents to a worst case of 40 cents, depending on which state you're in, which credits and rebates are in effect, how much sunlight you get each day. The lower costs reflect tax credits and state rebates. The rebates are simple refunds of a percentage of the purchase price of the hardware and/or installation, and this comes off the gross, before taxes. A tax credit on the other hand, is totally different: it is taken off the amount of the Federal taxes due, so the dollars saved are far more valuable.

Another important factor: the cost of solar energy has been steadily decreasing, while the cost of "dirty" energy (coal and oil generated) has been steadily going up. Typically, the cost of grid energy is 12 cents per kWh on average in the U.S. — about the same cost as for solar energy in a good, typical case. Wind turbines can generate electricity for 10 cents to 23 cents (best case and worst case).

What this boils down to is this: if you're not already using solar power, you probably will very soon. Then the question becomes simply do you want to buy or rent — have a solar energy company pay for the hardware and installation and guarantee your energy cost. It's certainly a sure-fire way to reduce our dependency on imported oil, and it's coming to your neighborhood soon.  

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