One of our responsibilities as editors of CEE News is to alert readers to new markets that could offer new business opportunities. Over the next few months, we will be exploring the solar, wind and other alternative fuel markets to see if they may be of interest to electrical contractors.

Harvesting the sun's rays or the wind and converting these resources into electricity with photovoltaic panels or wind turbines may never be big business for most contractors. Yet, as Staff Writer Amy Fischbach discovered while researching her cover story, “Solar Biz,” solar electric installations can be a very viable business for contractors in California, the desert Southwest and Intermountain states. It's getting more popular in other areas of the U.S., too, but there's more happening in this market in these regions.

Aside from the increasing number of potential customers who want to “live off the grid” and not depend on utilities for their power, other trends are driving the renewed interest in solar energy:

Rebates offer incentives for solar installations

The White House's Energy Plan proposes a 15% tax credit on the purchase of residential solar electric or water heating equipment. In addition, the Federal Government's Million Solar Roofs Initiative provides financing assistance to homeowners and businesses in an effort to hit its goal of installing 1 million new solar systems by 2010.

The power crunch pushed people toward alternative power sources

While the energy crisis didn't get as bad this summer as most of us expected, the threat of rolling blackouts forced many energy consumers to reevaluate their power supplies. As alternative power sources, such as solar, become more efficient, more people will be willing to use them as either a primary or backup source of electricity because of their concerns about the reliability of the electrical grid.

Some builders now use solar as a selling feature

As builders compete to differentiate their homes, several builders see solar power as a selling feature for new developments. At its proposed Bickford Ranch development in Lincoln, Calif., U.S. Homes, Houston, plans to build nearly 1,000 solar-powered homes. Shea Homes, Walnut, Calif., is already installing solar equipment in several new developments. In one of the Shea Homes San Diego subdivisions, Builder magazine reports that homeowners are paying a $6,000 to $8,000 premium to install photovoltaic systems.

The systems are getting more efficient

A breakthrough discovery earlier this year at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colo., produced a photovoltaic cell that is 15.8% efficient, a measure of how much available sunlight it converts into electricity. While efficiency numbers are increasing, so are solar production figures — the production of photovoltaic products is up 40% worldwide in the last year.

The technical basics of photovoltaics are not very complicated

Electricians who have moved into solar say it's not a big stretch to learn the basics of photoelectric installations. Basically, the solar panels convert the sun's rays into DC electricity, which is stored in battery banks and then converted into AC current by a inverter.

The solar opportunity will not be of interest to all electrical contractors, but it's a market that you should check out if you want to diversify your business.