Solar Will Beat Oil

Photovoltaics are poised to become a competitive energy source.

| September 3, 2008

HfH Solar

This Habitat for Humanity house utilizes solar thermal collectors and photovoltaic panels.


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.

10/1/2008 2:40:01 PM come see and help if you have the time and resources. We are complete Barter and Trade/Exchange Community.

9/16/2008 9:18:44 AM

We're putting our money where our mouths have been for years and we're moving forward to install a solar PV system on our home this fall, but we don't have the budget to go the whole way all at once. We need to build it in steps over two to four years so that we eventually get it all complete, and get the system that works for us without breaking the bank. Our experience has been that nobody wants to help us figure out a way to do it within a modest budget or in managable steps. The installers and rebates and incentives are all based on someone spending $20,000 and getting a 100% change-over within a few days, and a $20,000 hangover for however long it takes to pay for it all. So we've taken it all upon ourselves to learn every little thing involved and how to do it all ourselves, how to design a system, what parts are essential and which can be added later, how to deconstruct such system into pieces that can work together and to make decisions about which pieces to buy now and which can we add later. Mostly, we'll be installing a full solar grid-tied system with just 4 solar panels this fall, but then we'll be able to add more solar panels as we can afford them and the rest of the system will already be in place. We can no longer wait for incentives, possible future price reductions (yeah right!), or any other magical savior to rescue us when it comes to our family's energy independence. We already know that we will not be able to afford the prices that everyone else will be paying in the future, nor will we now have to.

9/8/2008 7:00:39 AM

We are in the process of building a new home that will hopefully get the "energy star" rating. We are doing a lot of things different than traditional building practices. We are using geothermal heat and will be all electric. Some say we are stupid for going all electric, but my thoughts are a little different. I have plans to add solar panels to the roof of this new house in the future to supply our minimal electic needs. Obviously, I wouldn't be able to create natural gas if we went that route. I think solar is the way to go and there is no noise like I've heard about with wind systems. Hopefully prices will drop on the solar panels and we'll be able to do the switch in just a couple of years.

robert west_1
9/6/2008 7:27:19 PM

I have studied these developments for a few years now and I concur with the author of this piece. We will have no choice but to pursue solar energy as a source of power in the very near future. I have a blog on blogspot concerning this development as well as a lens on squidoo. Check them out if you would like to learn more.

uncle red
9/6/2008 12:19:51 PM

Kudos to Tyler and Leslie. Waving the ficticious "$1 a watt" banner is irresponsible. It's not true, and it gives consumers interested in investing in PV an excuse to not - 'why should I pay $10/W now when I can wait a year or two and pay $1/W?'. Right now, in Florida (including governmental incentives), a residential system can pay for itself financially in 10 years - that's a 10% annual return on investment, until electricity rates increase, then the ROI INCREASES. It's also post-tax dollars saved - most of us have to earn $1.30 to have $1 to spend. Commercially, due to additional tax incentives, PV systems can pay back in as little as 3 years, although 5 is a safer estimate. That's a ROI of 20% to 30%! When I approach a commercial client, I first find the accountant. The most financially accessible and attractive form of alternative energy is CONSERVATION. Solar water heaters and spray-foam insulation (preferrably soy-based) can cut most consumers' energy bills in half, and not just here in Florida. I'm a fan of Mother Earth, but this article amounts to disinformation.

9/5/2008 10:08:16 PM

I have yet to hear anyone address the issues of environmental impact of diverting either solar energy or wind energy. There simply MUST be an impact of obstructing solar radiation on a large scale from landing on it's intended target. The same for wind. Wind is dynamic energy. Abating wind force could very likely have effects on local and regional weather and climate. It may be an acceptable thing, but it surely exists. Environmentalists who decry the damming of rivers for the purpose of storing energy for hydroelectric production are peculiarly silent about this. Everyone is so in love with the concept that they are not asking the question.

9/5/2008 12:16:52 PM

The economics are critical in the development of solar energy. While an increase in demand tends to drive prices up in the short run, this represents profit potential that will result in a corresoponding increase in production. Increased production will drive prices back down. Furthermore, economies of scale in production could make prices go down further. Regarding the "wastelands" described in the article, no consideration was given to the potential value of such land as natural habitat. Lack of direct value for human industry does not mean the land has no long-term value in the form of natural areas. Large-scale projects are typically subject to environmental assessments to ensure all costs and benefits are considered. Generally speaking, I think the best place for solar technology is on buildings, so the land is used for two purposes at once. Finally, consider that all energy on earth is solar. Even oil occurs as a result of millions/billions, of years of solar input to the earth. However, it is not produced at a practical rate, hence it is considered non-renewable. Wind and hydro, while good renewable sources, would not exist without the sun. It makes sense to get energy directly from the sun.

george works
9/5/2008 10:52:54 AM

Four years ago my wife and I retired to a small Caribbean island where the electricity is both breathtakingly expensive and quite unreliable. I installed a 2.5KW photovoltaic array and associated equipment, and now pay practically nothing for electricity and never notice when the grid goes down. This technology is certainly ready for prime time. Unfortunately, wind and solar can't provide all the electricity that the world now generates from coal and nuclear. Many places just don't have enough sunlight or wind, and solar and wind power are costly. Conservation must be part of the answer too. We learned to live with ceiling fans instead of air conditioning, even on the hottest days. We always turn off lights and fans when we leave rooms and don't run outside lighting except when guests are expected. Our refrigerator is the most efficient Energy Star model available. A coffee maker is our only heat-producing electrical appliance, and it is a thermos carafe type. We found the adjustments in our life easy to make and are quite happy with solar power. I hope you will be too.

tyler _1
9/5/2008 10:20:10 AM

I am a huge fan of mother earth news and will continue to subscribe for years to come. However, as a Master Electrician and an alternative energy installer, I have never read a more ill-informed or poorly written article regarding anything ever. If it happened to be written by a five year-old, I apologize. The facts relating to everything from China becoming a massive producer, to the huge amount of energy that comes out of the sun, are not only completely unrelated, but also used completely out of context. Who else BUT China would produce the solar panels? And DUH. The sun creates heat and light. Wow. How insightful. If all the energy from your Discovery Channel show actually reached the earth, we would be incinerated. Solar panels will never reach $1 per watt, due to the fact that if demand ever increases, the price will only go up from its current price of $5 to $10 per watt. Holy crap. It's simple economics. ps - If you need somebody with a brain and some real experience to write these articles for you, feel free to email me.

9/5/2008 9:22:30 AM

Agree that we need to now make the hard push we stopped making 30+ years ago in the change over to solar and wind. There is no reason that each new built home that is properly sited cannot have solar hot water and supplemental electric panels installed. The additional cost over a 30 year mortgage is offset by the savings in the first few years of operation even if the original owner is not going to stay in the house. What is needed even more is an educational program for the average consumer. Most know nothing about solar and the advantages and savings in pollution generated by going to solar. Once the general public is more up to speed then we will have a larger base to push for more of the government money given to BIG OIL to be moved to solar and wind. Pickens is making a start and makes good points, we need the gap filled so this time when the children are grand parents, we will see oil used very little and the alternatives the main source. It won't happen over night but lets not drop the ball like we did over 30 years ago.

9/4/2008 7:45:18 PM

This is another very interesting article on solar power and how it will potentially become a major source of alternative energy in the future. There are numerous sources of alternative and renewable energy available if we open our eyes and do some leg work in finding it. One of the many positive benefits of developing solar or any other alternative source of energy is funneling much needed money into our own economy rather than OPEC. When oil skyrocketed after Hurricane Isabell, I bought a wood pellet stove and saved a bundle of money heating my home. In the process, I reduced my carbon footprint, utilized a green and alternative energy source produced in the US, and reduced my dependence on OPEC. Plus, I enjoyed the process of discovering what was out there in terms of changing my lifestyle to utilize a cleaner and less expensive form of energy to heat my home. I'm currently working on a breadbox solar hot water heater to offset our electric bill since electric is expected to increase in the next year. Once I get this system up and running, I'll be looking at my next alternative energy project.

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