Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Solar Symposium Recap

I'm a little later than promised on this post (as has been the case for the last two months or so), but I would like to take the opportunity to recap what I learned at the Green Store's Solar Syposium the other day. Unfortunately, the presentation ran quite long, and I had to leave before Mr. Coon was finished speaking. I will, however, present the highlights of the first part here.

A large crowd of about 30 people turned out to hear the talk. On hand was Pat Coon of
Energyworks, a company that has been in the business of installing renewable and efficient energy systems for a decade now. Along with speaking about the technical details related to solar electric installation, Mr. Coon also provided an interesting history of the evolving solar electric industry.

Ten years ago, all solar powered homes depended upon a battery of batteries to store electricity for use when the sun isn't out. There were very few component parts, meaning that installation took a lot of fabrication and labor time. In other words, it was slow and expensive to install solar electricity in a home, and it was primarily done in new construction. However a series of events, including a growing awareness of the environmental and political impacts of our oil dependence, have led to drastic changes in the industry. Not the least of these events were the Enron blackouts experienced in California in the late 1990's. Concerned about capacity, the State of California passed legislation providing incentives to install solar electric systems.

Suddenly a niche market became a much larger market, and industries stepped in to meet the increased demand. Manufactured mounting rails replaced the need for installers to fabricate the foundation upon which the solar panels would rest on the roof. The panels themselves became "plug and play" models, rather than those featuring an intricate series of wires to navigate. Instead of a matter of weeks, installation of an entire system could be completed in a matter of days.

But perhaps the biggest change to bring solar to the masses, as it were, was the development of the "Grid Tie Inverter". This unit enabled solar panels to exist electricity generated by the utilities. When the sun is generating more electricity than the building needs, the excess is in effect stored on the grid (and the meter on your house runs backward). When the sun isn't enough (or isn't out at all), the house draws from the utility system. Instead of a bank of batteries and a retrofit to a house, all that was required (in addition to the photovoltaic (PV) panels), was relatively small piece of equipment that currently costs only a couple thousand dollars. Now practically anybody can put solar panels on their house.

A typical home can have a 2,000 watt system (14 panels) installed for less than $20,000. At current electrical costs, the typical Maine home will save $40 a month with this kind of system, meaning the sytem will pay for itself in a little more than 20 years. (Thankfully, the panels are warrented for 25 years!) The part of the talk that discussed rebates and financing, unfortunately, is the part that I had to leave during. I did hear that Maine's rebates appear to be quite insufficient. The state is offering $500,000 per year in rebates, only 25% of which ($125K) is earmarked for PV installations. At $3,000/1,000 watts of capacity, the rebate for a typical house will be $6,000. This means that in a given year, only about 20 homes will receive rebates to install solar systems. And judging by the number of people in attendence in Brunswick, there are a lot of families interested in putting solar on their homes. If many of them, like myself, were looking at the rebate as a way to make solar affordable for their homes, I'm afraid the incentive will ultimately fall short. (Read the entire law here.)

The remainder of the rebate pool ($375K) is pegged for solar hot water (SHW). Because electric hot water heaters are so inefficient, SHW provides more "bang for the buck," according to Coon. (I'm not certain what the numbers are). A SHW system costs $7,500, of which the state will rebate $1,250. Still a sizeable rebate, and the pool will cover 280 homes per year. The problem, according to Coon, is that his company can only install about 60 systems per year, and they are by far the biggest company in Maine when it comes to SHW installation.

The bottom line is that there doesn't appear to be enough of a rebate available for PV, whereas SHW will likely have unused rebate money, at least in the early years. While this is unfortunate, I think that I understand where the State is coming from on this one. My intuition tells me that many low-income Mainers probably have electric hot water heaters in their homes that they can't afford to replace. The state probably figures that it's better to get rebate money to the people who need the help the most, rather than a bunch of middle-class people who can possibly afford to "go solar" even at the higher cost.

Mr. Coon gave a nice talk, and it was great to see so many people show an interest in solar power. There's definitely a wave of interest, which will probably lead to "market forces" that will make the technology even more affordable to the middle class, even without government incentives. Coon believes that solar technology can meet all of our needs, with one major caveat: we need to stop wasting electricity. And we waste a lot of electricity in this country. Coon could (and does) give an entire presentation on how to cut back on our electrical waste, which I hope he can bring to the Green Store in the future. My hope is that solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tide power and other clean renewables will continue to be developed in a responsible manner, eliminating the need for this contry to burn environmentally damaging fossil fuels to power its toys.


Blogger weasel said...

They had a really good, positive story on a solar home on Channel 6 news the other night- a nice surprise and a change from the usual "Barn fire in Corrina: none hurt" lead.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Yeah, barns lack a bit as a source of renewable energy.

8:24 PM  

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