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April 28, 2011

Time to change your perception of alternative energy

  • Our power future may rely upon smaller power plants located closer to consumers.
  • By KEVIN CHARAP
    NW Wind & Solar

    mug
    Charap

    Solar and wind power are not the only answers to our need for new energy sources, but they are an important part of the equation. Ultimately, the solution may lay in smaller power plants located closer to energy consumers.

    Although reports vary slightly, the general consensus is that the photovoltaic market grew 139 percent in 2010, with 18.2 gigawatts of new solar PV capacity installed globally during the year. Europe accounts for 81 percent of 2010 PV demand, while the U.S. accounts for only 5 percent.

    California, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado led the states in 2010 installations. Because reporting is voluntary, it is difficult to determine where Washington ranks.

    The U.S. wind industry had 40,181 megawatts of wind power capacity installed at the end of 2010, with 5,116 megawatts installed last year alone. The U.S. wind industry has added more than 35 percent of all new generating capacity over the past four years, second only to natural gas, and more than nuclear and coal combined.

    Today, U.S. wind power capacity represents more than 20 percent of the world’s installed wind power.


    Top wind power generators
    1. Texas — 10,085 megawatts

    2. Iowa — 3,675 megawatts

    3. California — 3,177 megawatts

    4. Minnesota — 2,192 megawatts

    5. Washington — 2,105 megawatts

    (Wind power capacity installed in 2010)

    The small wind industry is still in its infancy. Western Washington is not an ideal area to generate wind power but Eastern Washington has a growing number of wind farms and individual installations that are rated for 2,105 megawatts, ranking it fifth in the states producing electricity from wind.

    Unlikely as it may seem, Western Washington is a viable climate for solar power generation. On an annual basis, we receive 70 percent as much solar energy as many of the best locations in the U.S. With no limitations on the types of systems that can be installed here, property owners can choose systems based on their overall goals and the physical characteristics of where the system will be located.

    In the Seattle area, we see that the amount of electricity produced annually by a PV system is about equal to the system size. For example, if you had a 4-kilowatt system on your home or business, you could expect to produce approximately 4,000 to 4,500 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

    The evolution of the solar industry is in some ways predictable and in other ways not.

    Predictably, module prices have declined substantially over the past two years — in large part due to both increased competition in the marketplace and efficiencies in the manufacturing process. New types of systems including thin-film have been developed and are constantly being refined to increase efficiency.

    General Electric recently announced that it will invest $600 million to build the largest solar panel production facility in the U.S. The company says that its full-sized thin-film solar panel has been independently certified to be the world’s most efficient thin-film solar panel at 12.8 percent aperture area efficiency. This compares to approximately 16 percent efficiency found in most traditional silicon modules.

    The development of micro-inverters, while obvious in hindsight, was not so evident a few years ago. This significant development improves PV system performance in situations where there is some marginal shading. It is odd that more manufacturers have not yet begun production in Washington. With increased local production, costs would go down and make solar more affordable here.

    Who’s installing the systems?


    Common renewable
    energy incentives
    Federal:
    • Income tax credit for up to 30 percent of installation cost for residential or business; expires 12-31-16
    • Cash grant (in lieu of a tax credit) for up to 30 percent of installation cost for businesses only; expires 12-31-11

    State:
    • Renewable energy systems are exempt from state sales tax; expires 6-30-13
    • Production incentives for electricity produced from renewable energy systems; amounts vary depending on the number of “Made in Washington” components; annual limit is $5,000; expires 6-30-20


    The largest systems are being installed by utilities. Washington’s Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, located in Kittitas County, has the capacity to generate up to 273 megawatts of electricity from its 149 wind turbines — enough to power nearly 80,000 homes. With 2,723 solar panels, it is one of the largest utility-scale solar demonstration projects in the Pacific Northwest, rated at 500 kilowatts. It also provides much of the facility’s on-site energy needs.

    The Teanaway Solar Reserve received a permit for a 75-megawatt PV plant 90 miles east of Seattle and is the largest Washington project in planning that has been made public.

    Public entities — low-income housing facilities, schools, defense installations and other public buildings — often receive grants to install solar systems. State-funded new construction projects, especially schools, have LEED, Built-Green or similar sustainability commitments.

    State regulations require that all major facility projects of public agencies that receive any state funding in their capital budgets pursue LEED certification. Thus, efforts to improve green construction are motivating the installation of some commercial renewable systems in Washington.

    The state-funded Community Solar program is also generating some systems up to 75 kilowatts.

    In states like California and New Jersey, private commercial building owners are installing solar systems because the cost of electricity is high and there are government incentives that make the installation of these systems a financial slam dunk. As the commercial real estate market recovers, building owners should be looking at solar power options, as the market continues to evolve rapidly and it becomes more cost-effective to install those systems.

    The largest market segment in Western Washington is residential. The reasons individual homeowners install solar or wind turbine systems range from the belief that “it’s the right thing to do,” or they are tired of paying money to a utility when they can produce their own power and receive credits for excess production. This program is called Net Metering and customers can zero out their electrical bill annually.

    Others look at it as a “cool technology” that differentiates their property from others. Some see it as a definite added value for their home; others are hurrying to buy before incentives run out. The most recent reason is to supply additional power for a car-charging station.

    What’s in the future?

    We expect to see at least three new manufacturers of modules and/or grid-tied inverters in Washington by the end of 2012. That increased production and competition will drive prices down, making the state’s Made in Washington Production Incentive easier to attain and make PV systems even more affordable.

    Western Washington is a good solar resource and as the market changes — electricity costs continue to rise and solar systems become more cost-effective — many old assumptions about the costs and benefits of alternative energy will no longer be valid. When they take the time to review it, commercial building owners, public entities and homeowners will likely find many benefits for installing clean renewable energy systems.


    Kevin Charap is the design and installation manager of NW Wind & Solar in Seattle. He is certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners as a solar PV installer and earned his bachelor’s degree in construction management from Washington State University.


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