Over the last couple of years, EC&M has put forth an effort to research the topic of renewable energy and present our findings as to how it best relates to your technical needs and your company’s business goals. We started with an overview of distributed generation in February 2002. In February 2004, we analyzed photovoltaic systems and discussed how to harness the power of the sun. In this issue, we take a look at how wind power is making an effort to blow itself into the mainstream. And to bring these topics even closer to home, we even profiled a few design firms and contractors who install these systems around the country.

Each of these technologies is worthy of review for anyone working in the electrical field. It’s an especially important topic for those design firms and contractors looking to expand their service offerings and diversify their revenue streams. But will these technologies ever turn into anything more than a niche market? Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see renewable energy for the masses occurring in my lifetime.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the technology. In fact, I applaud the efforts of solar and wind component manufacturers. Solar cell manufacturers continue to work hard to drive down the cost of solar cells. Their work with thin film technologies over the last 20 years is finally showing promise as a possible replacement for the traditional thicker, crystalline silicon cell, which currently captures more than 90% of the market. Solar inverter manufacturers have also worked hard to overcome interference problems and improve reliability levels of their equipment. On the wind power front, innovations in power electronics are helping to increase grid stability and variable rotors are being matched to specific wind categories to increase energy yields and reduce generation costs.

So what’s the problem? It all boils down to the fact that the initial capital cost of these systems is still too high to compete with traditional fossil fuel generation plants. Without subsidized support mechanisms in place from federal, state, and local agencies, solar and wind power generation just can’t compete with traditional coal-, oil- and gas-generated sources. Think of it this way: Are you willing to pay more for electricity just because you know it’s good for the environment? I didn’t think so. Neither am I.

So what needs to be done to make renewable power systems a viable generation option for the masses? It’s going to take a major commitment by the federal government to establish long-term federal tax incentive and rebate programs to move this technology into the mainstream. But the government isn’t about to implement long-term plans without the support of powerful lobbying groups and individuals like you and me pushing for this type of change. Without this type of investment, these technologies will continue to show incremental gains in efficiency and minimal reductions in costs, and never realize their full potential.

At least not in my lifetime.