Solar panels soak up the sun's energy on rooftops around the world, supplying electricity to remote locations and opening up a new market for electrical contractors.
"Solar electricity is not a someday technology," said Bill Roush, president of the Heartland Solar Industries Association. "It is a today technology. Things are moving fast and changing. Right now, today, we can be cheaper, better and cleaner than most power is around the world."
The rising cost of fuels and the thinning of the ozone layer has driven the U.S. government to think solar. In 1997, President Clinton announced the "Million Solar Roofs" campaign. By 2010, the government hopes to have solar energy systems installed on 1 million U.S. buildings and create 70,000 new jobs. In the next five years, the Department of Energy expects the solar energy market to exceed $1.5 billion worldwide.
This jump in demand for solar energy systems has perked the interest of electrical contractors, such as Chuck Marken, president of AAA Solar Service and Supply in Albuquerque, N.M. Marken worked as a electrician and heating and air conditioning contractor in the 1970s before launching his solar energy business. His company recently installed solar electrical systems for 22 houses on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
"As that part of the trade, I thought it might be a good niche," Marken said. I'm still an electrical contractor and journeyman electrician, but we do very few regular electrical jobs any more. We're quite specialized in the solar."
Marken's electrical background helped ease his transition into the solar energy business since he had prior knowledge of the permit process, wiring practices, the National Electrical Code and where to purchase supplies, he said.
"The sales, distribution and installation is very much just like regular electrical contracting, but instead of hooking up to a power line, we hook up to solar panels and put in an inverter that changes the electricity from DC to AC," Marken said. "For the installations, you have to get some knowledge of batteries, inverters and solar panels. The rest of it is all straight electrical contracting, electrician type work."
Electrical contractors must know how to work with both AC and DC circuits in order to install a solar system. Randy Henk, an electrical engineer and master electrician, found the DC installations to be the biggest challenge.
"These are hard systems to install mainly because there's lots of wire sizing calculations and you end up working with fairly large size wire compared to a residential house you'd normally wire," said Henk, president of Natural Energy Systems in White Bear Lake, Minn.
On large projects, an electrical team can be split up to do the AC and the DC wiring. Tim Harrington, a homeowner in Blue Springs, Mo., hired two different electrical contractors to install a wind turbine and an array of solar panels in his backyard. One contractor connected the 48 64-W panels to an inverter in the garage and another one wired the inverters in the garage to the breaker boxes in the basement. He said the team that did the DC side had prior experience with solar installations.
"They've done several before, so they pretty much knew what they were doing," he said. This one was unique, though, because it was so large." For Richard McFadden, a project manager with Kansas City-based Precision Power and Cable, the project was his first experience with solar installation. He supervised the AC portion of the job, but also got an opportunity to learn about the DC wiring.
"Most electrical contractors are AC or DC and they don't want to cross over," McFadden said. "I'm willing to learn. I found out that the voltage drop was a lot worse on the AC, but other than that, the installation was fairly similar to a traditional electrical job."
Roush, the president of Solar Electric Systems of Lenexa, Kan. said he plans to work with McFadden's company on future installations.
"A lot of the electrical contractors say, "Hey, we're busy enough already. We don't want to mess with anything different," Roush said. "But there are some out there that really like new technology and like to be up on the latest stuff."
Advancements in Solar Energy Electrical contractors not only have to learn about DC voltages, but they also need to have a basic understanding of solar energy, which is also called photovoltaics. Photovoltaics was invented about 40 years ago at AT&T's Bell Laboratories and later used to power satellites and space vehicles.
Solar panels have moved out of space and into the commercial market. They now not only power satellites, but they also provide electricity and heat water for homes and businesses worldwide.
Marken said solar cells make up solar modules, which produce electricity. Solar energy is also characterized into passive and active solar energy.
"Passive energy ends up being a simpler technology and more reliable," Marken said. "Active solar energy technology is applied almost exclusively to heating and water heating solutions, which aren't photovoltaic cells but rather panels that produce heat."
Marken said he works with both active and passive solar energy. AAA Solar Service and Supply's projects are almost all residential, with about 50% heating and hot water and 50% electrical jobs. The majority of the water heating projects are in Albuquerque and about 95% of the solar electrical systems are in remote areas away from power lines.
"There aren't too many companies that deal with both passive and solar energy because the technologies are vastly different," Marken said. "One is very high tech and takes billions of dollars worth of equipment to make solar cells to produce electricity." (Continued from page 10) The other one is a mix of heating and water-heating equipment that can be done in a small facility by a crew of one to three people."
The solar equipment is getting less expensive because of the advancements in cell technology, he said.
"They're able to splice cells thinner," Marken said. "The efficiencies are going up a little bit and the costs are coming down a little bit."
Marken compared the solar or photovoltaic industry to the computer industry because the solar cells use the same kind of silicon.
"It's the same silicon that Intel uses in its computer chips," Marken said. "It's built the same way also. It's actually very similar. That's why it's such an expensive thing to get into and is so high tech." The solar cells may be built of the same material as computer chips, but because of their efficiency, they will not be able to be made smaller. Marken said the solar panels are only about 15% efficient in converting sunlight to electricity.
"There won't be real great breakthroughs like computers because computers have essentially used smaller and smaller chips," Marken said. But you can't make a solar panel smaller and make it better. You need it to get bigger to make it better, which means it uses more silicon."
The solar industry is not only working on cell technology, but is also trying to integrate power-producing solar panels into the facade and structure of buildings. For example, contractors can install solar shingles on a roof.
"The solar industry is having to learn all these things that they never learned before," Roush said. "They're great at making solar panels. They know how to do that, but they are now trying to learn the building industry. Integrating the panels into the building is a whole new thing."
Designers can now blend translucent panels into office buildings, Roush said.
"If you look at the flash cube buildings that are all glass or mostly glass, some of those panels could be translucent, power-producing solar panels," Roush said.
The European designers are even manufacturing solar panels that come in different colors and shapes.
"The panels can actually be power-producing and be a design element of the building by making some logo," Roush said. "The industry is trying to see where it best fits in to these things."
To encourage more businesses to install solar systems, the government now offers a permanent 10% federal commercial tax credit, Roush said.
"If a small business or home office or company buys a system and installs it and it costs $20,000, they would be able to eliminate $2,000 of federal taxes," Roush said. "It's better than a deduction. It's a credit."
That equipment qualifies for a five-year accelerated depreciation schedule.
"Instead of a lot of building components that you depreciate over 20 years, it can be written off over five years, Roush said. "Forty two percent of the system's cost would be offset by those two benefits by the end of the sixth year, when you've taken all the credits."
living on and off the grid
Homeowners and businesses that are located near power lines can supplement power from the grid with solar energy to reduce energy costs. Manufacturers, such as Trace Engineering in Arlington, Wash., are now making inverters that synchronize with the grid, Roush said.
"These new inverters synchronize with the grid, offset utility power, save energy and pollute less," Roush said. "Many of them can store power in batteries for an uninterruptable power supply, which is an added benefit in future events."
Because you are producing the power on site, you can also use the power on site and store that power on site for use at another time, Roush said.
"Some of these systems are like a generator, except it's like a generator that works for you 365 days a year instead of just waiting for the emergency situation," Roush said.
Both businesses and homeowners have realized solar energy's potential for efficient backup power. Harrington of Blue Springs, Mo., uses the array of solar panels and wind turbine in his backyard to supplement the power from the grid. The power, which is stored in batteries in his garage, can meet his family's electrical needs for about three days if the power goes down.
Roush, who sold Harrington the solar equipment, said the solar energy serves as an efficient backup system.
"Tim's one of those guys who has wanted to do renewable energy and solar energy for a long time," Roush said. "He had Y2K concerns, and solar made a good backup so he said, 'Let's just do it now. It would be a backup system if the utility power goes down.'"
While some homeowners use solar energy as a backup power source, about 20,000 homes in the United States are completely off the grid and depend solely on alternative energy, Roush said.
The reason why more homeowners aren't living off the grid is because solar equipment is three to five times more expensive than grid-fed electricity, Marken said.
"It's not something that everybody's doing and that's the reason why," he said. "A quarter to a half a mile away from a power line is worth investigating because of the cost of putting in a power line."
Solar energy tends to be more popular in the Western states where many homeowners live in remote locations, Marken said.
"In many cases, it's just absolutely the only way to go really for a lot of people," Marken said. (Continued on page 14)
"There is also no other good viable alternative for such things as communications on mountaintops, railroads and signaling equipment in the middle of nowhere, remote homes and water pumping. The Coast Guard uses a tremendous amount of solar energy for virtually all the buoys they have."
Conserving energy and monitoring electrical usage
Homeowners and businesses that want to have a solar system installed have to estimate how much electricity they use so they can conserve energy.
"Everyone in America is used to turning on the light switch," Marken said. "With a photovoltaic system, you have to be able to estimate how much electricity you use. It's critical. It costs too much not to do it and is just foolish. You have to look at electricity in a different way than you have all your life if you have grown up with it."
A full home system can run anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000, depending on a family's energy usage, Marken said.
"A lot of people come to us to start with and say, "Well I have a 1,500 sq ft, three-bedroom house," Marken said. "You can put two different people in that house and have an electrical usage that will vary five or 10 times. Photovoltaic systems are designed for people and families, not for houses."
Lighting can make a big difference in the amount of energy usage, Marken said.
"If you use incandescent lights, it is going to take four $500 panels and if you use fluorescent lights, it is going to take one," Marken said. You can spend $1,500 more dollars just because of the lightbulb you use."
Consumers need to not only be able to conserve energy and monitor energy usage, but they also have to make a significant financial investment for the installation of a solar electrical system.
"We tell people right up-front that if they are tied to the electrical grid, this is not going to make economic sense to them," Marken said. "If they're looking at it for environmental reasons-fine. But if they're looking at it to save you money, it isn't-not on the electrical grid in the United States."
The United States has the cheapest grid electricity in the world, with prices from 6 cents a kilowatt hour to 15 cents a kilowatt hour, Marken said.
"Where there is hydroelectric power you have cheap electricity and where they have to burn coal or oil you have expensive electricity," he said. "It tends to be expensive in New England and cheap in Washington state."
In other countries with undependable electricity, solar makes sense, Marken said.
"It costs 50 cents a kilowatt hour in Africa and the service is poor," Marken said. "They just do not have the type of convenience that we have here."
Solar electricity provides viable options for the two-thirds of the world's population without an efficient utility grid, Roush said.
"Internationally, people are paying way more for power that's dirtier, not as clean electrically and not nearly as dependable as solar electricity is," Roush said.
But with the deregulation of the grid, more people could be turning to solar energy, he said.
"In the United States, as we deregulate the utility grid, I can only see our dependability going down because there's been less maintenance," he said. "It's going to get tougher as things get more competitive. Our role as onsite, uninterruptable power supply is going to grow a lot."
Future of Solar Energy The solar energy industry is growing slowly but steadily, Marken said.
"In the last 10 years, solar has had a growth of about 15% and 20% a year in the United States," Marken said. "This has been caused by a lot of people moving to remote locations and wanting power. Native Americans living in very remote places have found they can replace kerosene lanterns with the solar lighting. To some extent, a small bit of people are doing solar projects that are on grid, where they have grid-fed electricity."
Marken said he's not sure what lies ahead for solar energy.
"I see it growing just like it's growing now-growing in popularity but not spiking with great popularity and setting the world on fire," Marken said. "It's all tied in with the price of oil. As long as there is still an abundance of oil, solar is going to have a niche in the marketplace, but not be into the grid."
Henk of Natural Energy Systems Inc. said the United States needs to go to different resources, such as solar, because the barrel price of oil is going up.
"We need to get less dependent on oil from other countries," Henk said. "Solar and other renewables is one way."
The Million Solar Roofs campaign and the government's commercial tax credit could boost the number of solar systems in the United States, creating more jobs and learning opportunities for electrical contractors. Roush predicts that solar energy has a bright future.
"I'm old enough that I remember looking for alternatives during the energy-crisis days," Roush said. "Solar energy has a lot of potential."