Solar Will Beat Oil

Photovoltaics are poised to become a competitive energy source.

| September 3, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I watched a History Channel documentary about the sun, and it left me with something unexpected. Until then I thought I understood the potential of solar energy. I didn’t. The thing I’d missed was the sheer size of the solar opportunity.

So much solar energy hits our planet that it even threatens to burn out the entire global information infrastructure if precautions aren’t taken during solar flare events. Who would have thought there was an entire branch of the U.S. government dedicated to monitoring the sun and warning about potential energy blasts it sends our way? (Check out the Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

Something New Under the Sun

But there are exciting new developments related to the sun. They’re happening right here on earth and will affect the way you live, right down to what happens when you flip a light switch.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels turn sunlight directly into electricity, and production and conversion efficiencies of this hardware are skyrocketing. Annual production of PV panels has risen by about 48 percent each year since 2002, but that’s not the most important number in this game.

Industry analysts think the price of photovoltaics will drop to $1 per installed watt by 2010. That’s a magic number because it’s the point at which solar-generated electricity becomes competitive with electricity produced from fossil fuels. Right now, there are enough photovoltaic systems in the world to power 2.4 million modern homes. And while this is still a drop in the bucket compared to the world’s total energy needs, this number will explode as soon as solar power becomes directly competitive with traditional alternatives.

Several countries are right on top of this. In March 2007, Spain began requiring all new, non-residential buildings to generate a portion of their electricity with photovoltaics. China is poised to become the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic cells this year. Germany now boasts more than 300,000 buildings with solar panels. While it’s true that this is mostly a product of government subsidies, they probably won’t be necessary much longer. And as fossil fuels become more expensive and politically troublesome, those early “kick-start” subsidies offered by forward-looking governments will look like good investments indeed.

2/13/2009 1:59:36 PM

As child I was just fascinated by solar cells, I even bought a little solar powered fan from one of the mail order catalogs. It was just incredible that you could get electric from the sun, with that silly little fan I had the future in my hands. Now about 30 years later I can't believe how little progress has been made in harvesting all the power that the sun has to offer at a affordable price.

1/25/2009 1:50:39 PM

Unfortunately I am like many in this country that really need solar to reduce the monthly bills but so far it is just way out of my price range. I will be changing my south facing screened porch into a greenhouse to help heat the house. I just don't have enough wind here to use wind turbine for electricity but I am building one to pump water from an old well to the gardens.I was considering going over to solar hot water but right now I am working on getting enough wood chips to combine with manure from rabbits and chickens to produce my hot water since i will be able to use the compost later in the gardens. I have built solar cookers and water purifiers when i was in Mexico and since i will be doing a lot of vegetable drying here I will have solar dehydrators and a couple of solar stoves as well for cooking.I have devised a system to use my chickens and geese to fertilize,weed and cultivate new garden spots by using movable runs, this will save a lot of fuel from the tractor which i am changing over to methane that i will produce in the compost piles {thanks to MOM's article on the Frenchman}and use it mainly as a PTO drive for a chipper and to run a small generator for electricity.After the chickens scratch the soil up I will let the earthworms take over cultivation of the compost raised beds. So even though I can't afford PV cells I am using solar,wind and bio-thermal energy,as well as finding ways to save all the electricity and fuel I can. I added poor man's triple pane thermal windows{plastic on outside and inside of window frames,laugh but it works great and cost $20 to do all my windows with enough left over for a solar heated raised bed} Now if I could just find someone with a strong back to pitch a tepee out back and help me, I would be fine. Maybe I should run ads for homestead apprentice that will work for room and board :}.

10/31/2008 1:44:03 PM

New legislation calls for a true 30% tax credit for PV solar and wind. The credit used to be capped at $2000. Now if you wait until 2009 to install your new system (or install it now, but wait until 2009 to turn it on) you will get a tax credit (30% of the installed cost) applied to the bottom line of your taxes. One thing to note is that the $2000 cap still applies to solar water heating system. The good news is that they are far less expensive to install (avg. cost $7000) so the $2000 cap should cover just about 30% anyway.

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