These are some of the same questions I asked myself about solar power before opening the blinds to reveal some answers. First, simply defined, solar power is the captured energy resulting from the collection of the sun’s radiation. But if you want to think about it from a deeper angle, in actuality, the sun is the source of all energy. Through photosynthesis, the sun’s energy is stored as fuel in plants, which are then eaten by us, directly or through plant-eating animals, and used as fuel for our bodies. Also through photosynthesis, the sun’s energy is stored in trees and fossils later released as fuel when we burn wood, oil, coal, and gas. The sun’s energy creates wind, the tides, and flowing water whose energy we can harness through hydroelectric power and thermal dynamics. Not to mention that without the sun, life on earth would cease to exist.
So how does solar power work? There are three main ways that we have found to collect the sun’s rays. They are called "passive", "active", and "photovoltaic" (also called PV). Passive solar involves the thoughtful design of a building in ways that most efficiently utilize the sun’s rays for heating, cooling and lighting. The main factors considered are the direction of windows, skylights, and house placement in relation to the sun, the use of a greenhouse wall, a ventilation system, and the clever usage of building materials and colors that absorb, store, and slowly release heat. Active solar is only used for heating water. It involves mounting fluid filled collectors on top of a roof, that when heated by the sun can be used to heat a water tank. The third and most promising means of capturing the sun’s energy is through technology called photovoltaic, or PV. PV cells are made of silicon or other semiconductor materials that convert sunlight (photons) directly into electricity (voltage). PV cells often produce excess electricity. The energy is stored in batteries if the building is "stand alone" (not connected to the utility companies grid). If the building is grid connected, in many states the extra energy can be sold back to the utility company at the going rate (the meter will actually spin backwards).
Ancient architecture worldwide reveals examples of how long humans have been gleaning the rays of the sun through passive solar design. Over 3,000 years ago the Greeks used large, south facing windows in collaboration with large, thick walls and floors to make best use of available light and to store and gradually release heat. The southwest Indians of pre-Columbian America purposely positioned their cliff dwellings to remain shaded from the hot summer sun while trapping the sun’s heat in the winter. Colonial Americans also built their homes with the living areas facing south.
Over 100 years ago the "Climax Solar Collector" was patented. It was a series of black tanks in a roof-mounted, water filled, galvanized box. The sun heated water which was moved by convection and gravity to the tub or sink below. By 1900, 30% of homes in Pasadena, California, were using active solar. By 1940, Miami, Florida, had 60,000 Climax Solar Collectors. By 1961 Australia, Israel, and Japan were selling 60,000 simple solar water heaters a year. By 1991 Tokyo, alone, had over 1 ½ million of them as did two-thirds of the homes in Israel.
Solar technology has advanced tremendously since then; in the past decade photovoltaic panels’ cost has dropped 80% while doubling in efficiency. The latest technology on the market is called ‘building integrated photovoltaics’. The PV ‘panel’ is now a thin film that doubles as shingles (you can deduct the cost of shingling your roof right off the bat). There are no moving parts, making them very durable, practically maintenance free, and easy to install-no more giant, fragile, heavy panels, or bulky tracks on the roof, and the new ‘panels’ are much more pleasing to the eye. They also come with a 25-year warranty.
Although still years away from commercial availability, the latest PV technological development in progress deals with electrically conductive plastics. According to the 2000 Nobel Prize winning chemist recognized for his work with conductive polymer solar cells, Alan Heeger, this is a very exciting time because if these new plastics work out it will be the dawn of inexpensive solar cells, which will really allow solar power to blast off.
25 good reasons to use solar:
1). Each day, the earth receives enough solar energy to heat every home in the
world for 27 years.
2). It’s a FREE fuel.
3). It’s unlimited, so we wouldn’t have to squander the earth’s limited
4). It’s nonpolluting.
5). It would, for the most part, end the greenhouse effect and smog.
6). It would reduce devastating accidents like oil spills, strip mining, and nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, and near accidents like Three Mile Island.
7). The Sun’s light is widely distributed-unlike fossil fuels, which are geographically unfair.
8). It is not owned by ONE country or person. To this day, ancient Roman laws protecting rights to unblocked sun are acknowledged by British law and in legal codes of other countries.
10). It will provide independence from fossil fuels.
11). Freedom of choice. Non-renewable fuel companies function as
monopolies leaving us with few energy source options or even options of who to purchase utility service from.
12). It would increase the value of your home.
13). It can be used with a clear conscience.
14). It has a better job outlook than non-renewables do.
15). It establishes security against price skyrockets and supply shortages.
16). If grid connected, net metering allows you to own your own mini utility company and earn money selling your excess electricity back to the power company.
17). It can reduce your utility bills from 75-100% .
18). With battery back up, you don’t have to worry about power outages.
19). The global market for solar is estimated to reach $4 trillion in the next few decades. This is a good reason to invest in stocks of solar products; which will also help direct the solar product market into the mainstream rather than into the monopolies hands!
20). There are many rebates and government incentives to use it and more are anticipated.
21). It is scalable to any size and can be added upon a little at a time.
22). It can be portable.
23). It is not noisy.
24). It requires little maintenance, and comes with a long warranty.
25). "It has the greatest potential for radical reductions in cost", says Mark Hammonds, of BP Solarex.
So what’s the catch? Why aren’t we using solar power more? Isn’t the United States privy to some of the world’s most innovative scientists and researchers? Don’t we have money to invest in wise business ventures? Don’t we value this nation we’ve built and want to ensure its greatness for future generations of our children? This is where probing those questions begins to get really interesting, but first a few statistics.
Most of the leading solar technology and production comes from the U.S.. In fact, we currently manufacture two-thirds of the world’s PV systems. Unfortunately, we turn around and export 75% of them! Currently Germany and Japan are leading the way using solar. Solar energy supplies 20% of the world’s energy to date. Alternative power stations already supply 25% of Australia and New Zealand’s electrical needs, while only providing 5% of the U.S.’s. No one disputes that the world’s reserve of fossil fuels will be depleted within an estimated 20-60 years. According to the Federal Energy Information Administration, in 1999 the U.S. consumed 25% of the world’s supply of fossil fuels for that year, and our appetite for energy is increasing. Currently the U.S. imports over 53% of its oil and this amount is estimated to increase to 75% by 2010. 70% of America’s energy need could be realistically met with renewables by 2030.
Polls of citizens over the last two decades have consistently indicated the publics preference of developing solar technologies. 94% of U.S. citizens want solar power or would use it if available and even pay more for it. Wow, that’s a lot of us. If that’s the case, then what’s going on? Are we a democracy, or a demockracy?
A bright vision of solar power emerged in the 1970’s, as a patriotic response to the oil embargo. Jimmy Carter’s energy plan included a goal of powering 20% of the nation with renewables by the year 2000. The president even put solar panels on the White House. The threat of solar tightened chests in the oil companies, as any free, clean, unlimited fuel source can be sure to do. At this point the oil and gas companies were ready to play hardball. They formed political action committees that contributed almost 3 million dollars to House and Senate candidates with "strong pro-industry voting." In California, Pacific Gas and Electric/Southern California Edison fought hard against the publics rights to own and use solar water heaters. By the late 70’s Exxon, Mobil, Arco, Amoco and other oil companies had bought out many of the solar companies and the PV cell patents. Then, none other than former spokesperson for General Electric, Ronald Reagan, was elected president. The Carter solar tax credits ended, the $684 million investment Carter had requested was cut to $83 million, budgets were cut, studies squashed, and researchers fired. Then, adding insult to injury, Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House roof. Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day and former Department of Energy staffer from the Reagan era says, "It was a clear, calculated campaign by the DOE in the years of the Reagan administration to crush the solar energy program of the federal government, driving many of the most talented people out of the field". Our current president, former oil company executive George W. Bush, supports drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, supports development of nuclear power, and opposes the Kyoto Protocol.
Opponents of solar power, who mainly consist of the non- renewable fossil fuel companies, like to point out that it is not cost effective to produce PV cells. That is actually their entire argument as to why we should close the curtains on solar.
It appears that the driving force behind most environmental destruction simply boils down to money. It’s clear that when you’re rich and powerful you have the means to stall the success of the competition. Has the non-renewable fuel industry been trying to slow the growth of the renewable industry to prevent solar from going mainstream? What business minded fossil fuel investor wouldn’t ? If too many customers switched to solar, the utility companies would have to raise their existing customers’ rates in order to compensate for lost profits, which would in turn spur the switch-over of even more customers to solar, ultimately resulting in bankruptcy for the utilities.
Now that you’re privy to some of solar’s oppressed history, let’s address the "not cost effective" argument. Depending on house size and kilowatt usage, a home solar system currently will run from $10-$30,000, installed. At first glance, the price tag attached to a residential solar system appears pretty shocking, but the price isn’t as high as it seems once you take into account all of the ‘pros’ of solar power that we discussed above, as well as some of the following pro-solar arguments. Not to mention that once the equipment is paid for, there are no more financial obligations since the fuel source is free.
The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that "using energy more efficiently and switching from fossil to renewable fuel will save consumers more money by decreasing energy use". Solar PV production costs have decreased sevenfold since 1981 and it’s a commonly shared opinion that costs will continue to drop as technology and demand rise, which will stimulate more use. In fact, the World Bank estimates the global market for solar will reach $4 trillion in 30 years! Even the Oil and Gas Journal reports that despite the high initial cost, solar PV has the best long-term potential because "it has the most desirable set of attributes and the greatest potential for radical reductions in cost".
The Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute logically notes that it can be argued that "only by use of hidden subsidies have fossil fuels and nuclear energy remained ‘cost effective’. If the tax advantages, environmental costs, and military expenses actually attributable to fossil fuels and nuclear energy were accurately tallied and explained to the public, the idea that they constitute ‘cheap energy’ would be revealed as a colossal fraud." The Congressional Research Service reported that "from 1973-1997, 75 cents of every research dollar went to nuclear and fossil fuels, leaving only 14 cents to alternative energy".
Founder of Alternative Energy Engineering and ex-Navy engineer, David Katz, also probes us to think about the cost from a different angle: "Unless you consider the actual cost of ‘cheap power’, which everyone in the world is paying for in contaminated water, polluted air and poisoned food".
The oil companies continue to make political monetary contributions and the government continues to hand out big tax breaks and subsidies to oil and gas drillers and monopoly utilities. The federal research and development money for PV, paid for by utility customers and taxpayers, is mostly controlled by the utilities. They decide what to test and keep the information tucked away for ‘long range planning’. Oil companies have bought up many of the patents on solar technology as well as many companies producing solar equipment. For example Amoco and Enron now own the PV company Solarex, and Solar Australia is owned by British Petroleum. The oil/utility monopolies are poised to take control of the solar industry but have no intentions of doing so until the world’s oil reserves are cashed out.
Is there anything we, the people, can do about this predicament? Ralph Nader reminds us, " Renewable solar energy is a commonwealth". Local, decentralized power is democratic. All the solar experts are in agreement that if solar went mainstream it couldn’t be controlled by the monopolies. But to achieve this, the public will have to get involved in a solar grassroots movement.
Solar could really use a legislative push to jump-start it. Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands all have large government programs set up to stimulate the use of solar and the U.S. is beginning to follow suit, although with much lesser incentives. The U.S. currently has no federal incentives for residential solar use-only for businesses. However, some states do offer tax breaks, rebates, and will waive building permit fees for residential installation.
Another idea is to allow the solar industry to subsidize costs by selling "emissions credits" to polluters as penalties for polluting.
Government research and development tax credits could also be given only to high efficiency products, so consumers will be less likely to fall prey to purchasing shoddy equipment.
Another great incentive is net metering: already over 30 states buy excess power back from customers, many at the going rate. Lawmakers in several states have deregulated the industry, and the ones not yet deregulated are offering clean power choices in efforts to improve their images for the impending deregulation.
Many are in agreement with scientist Pierre Mion, who believes there should be a national building code prohibiting any new construction that isn’t fuel efficient. Israel already has building codes in place that require solar water heating in all new buildings.
Finally, Ralph Nader argues an important point, "Capital and credit can be with held from the millions of Americans who in polls show an overwhelming preference to go solar. Solar technology, like new cars, requires a capital-credit infrastructure". What Nader is saying is that without, for example, automobile loans available to us, it would be out of the majority’s grasp to ever be able to purchase a new car. Equivalent in cost, the same holds true for a solar system. Although powering your home with the sun will save you money in the long run, many Americans don’t have the ability to make such a large purchase without some line of credit available to them. Solar grassroots lobbying is an important tool that we need to use to make options such as these available to us! To get involved with grassroots lobbying, there are several groups advocating the use of solar who make it very easy to contact your state government officials. Americans for Solar Power (www.forsolar.org/?q=node/1), Greenpeace USA (www.greenpeace.org/usa/- click "get involved" from list on left, see "take action" and click "current online actions", choose the dropdown list "more online actions", and click "tell congress you want a new energy plan"), and your respected state’s Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) (www.pirg.org- click on your state, then click on "how you can help", then chose "energy efficiency") have editable letters set up for you to sign and email with minimal effort. Or you can locate your government officials and acquire their contact information through www.statelocalgov.net.
Where do you sign up? At The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (www.dsireusa.org ) you can simply click on your state and learn about the incentives available to you. The National Renewable Energy Lab recommends contacting your local chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association or your local U.S. Department of Energy office, or by using your local phone book. A PV dealer can help you determine what kind and size of system you’ll need, assist in obtaining permits, and can usually install your system in one day.
The Native Americans’ history of a harmonic existence with the Earth serves as an example, as does their philosophy that the impact of our actions should be considered for the next seven generations. Some call life on Earth a chance; others call it a blessing. Whichever it happens to be, as citizens, consumers, voters, taxpayers, and humans, lets take a stand for solar, our future, and the future of the Earth and generations of humans to come.
Elle Housman is an aspiring freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has been published in Ujama News, The Colorado Daily’s monthly Women’s Magazine (publication pending-slotted for Oct. or Nov.), and two e-articles (and a brochure) published by the non-profit organization, The Black Biomedical Research Movement (BBRM). She holds an A.O.S. Degree in Graphic Design from Pratt Institute, and is a recent graduate of The University of Colorado at Boulder with a B.A. degree in Psychology. She is also a veteran grassroots lobbyist of Greenpeace.