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Building Green 2004

March 11, 2004

In the West, renewable energy gains popularity

  • Report predicts the state will gain up to 4,330 solar-energy jobs by 2014

    Seattle City Hall
    Photo courtesy of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
    Even on the rainy side of the Cascades, solar-energy projects are on the rise. Here, the roof of Seattle City Hall is wired and ready for solar power.

    The growth of solar and wind power is surging — from solar-powered bus shelters in Miami to wind-power-operated chairlifts at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort, to the solar-powered batteries on NASA's two Mars rovers.

    Five years ago, the high cost of wind and solar power equipment largely prohibited sales and installations. Today, the cost of many alternative power sources is comparable to the overall energy savings they accrue.

    In 2003, worldwide photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers shipped an estimated $4 billion in solar cells and modules. In the United States last year, orders and commitments for wind power exceeded 750 new megawatts of wind-generated electricity. That's enough power to serve the annual electricity needs of more than 230,000 average American households.

    Reduced costs and subsequent growth of alternative energies allow companies and homeowners to be better stewards of the environment.

    How does this national growth compare to alternative energy use in the Puget Sound, where hydroelectric power is inexpensive and plentiful, and wind and sunshine are hot commodities?

    Let's take a look at what's happening across the United States and even in our own backyard.

    Sunny predictions

    The International Solar Energy Society reports that solar PV sales in the United States grew 60 percent in 2002. Worldwide, the PV market has grown more than 20 percent per year for the past 25 years. At this rate, worldwide production of silicon solar panels is predicted to hit a remarkable gigawatt per year by 2006.

    Legislative support is closely linked to the continued growth of renewable energy sources. Solar-power producers will require substantial federal backing if they are to match prices of fossil fuel-powered, on-grid applications.

    It's encouraging to see legislators who lead by example. In 2003, House lawmakers approved legislation that would increase solar energy in federal buildings by as much as $263 million over the next four fiscal years. This would require the installation of 20,000 photovoltaic solar energy systems by 2010.

    At the state level, many states offer solar rebate programs that can cut the installation price as much as 70 percent. Thus, PV installations and applications are breaking new ground every day.

    In Las Vegas, a 214.5-kilowatt solar array installed on the roof of the newly constructed Andrew Lessman's Your Vitamins Inc. is now Nevada's largest photovoltaic installation and the first commercial-scale distributed generation system to offer renewable energy credits for sale to privately owned utilities.

    It is expected that by 2015, electric utilities will be required to obtain 15 percent of the power they sell from green energy outlets, making Nevada the third-largest producer of green power in the country.

    The success of solar energy is not limited to sunny regions. In fact, solar energy can be generated when the skies are cloudy.

    In San Francisco, a recent installation of 65,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Moscone Convention Center will generate at least 825,000 kilohertz per year. This is the first project that will utilize $100 million in bonds authorized to finance renewable energy and energy efficiency in that county.

    The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is planning a second PV installation for a city-owned and -operated wastewater treatment plant in Hunter's Point.

    Closer to home, a report published last year by Washington State University's Energy Program, “The Washington Solar Electric Industry: Sunrise or Sunset?,” predicts that, based on rapid development of solar electric industry in domestic and global markets, there is the potential of creating between 1,960 and 4,330 jobs over the next 10 years in both urban and rural sectors of Washington's economy.

    Interestingly, of the total PV installed in Washington in 2002, 65 percent is located on the rainy, wet side of the Cascade mountain range and 34 percent on the state's sunny, east side. On-grid PV in Washington has experienced an average annual growth rate of 335 percent since the state's net metering law came into effect in 1999. Off-grid PV has experienced an average annual growth rate of 114 percent since 1980.

    Wind power picks up

    Wind-generated power is increasingly tapped as a stable and reliable source of alternative energy. As of April 2003, there were a total of 166 wind projects worldwide, a substantial increase from 18 projects listed in 2000.

    In 2001, Seattle City Light made a 20-year commitment to purchase wind power from PacifiCorp, a power marketing subsidiary of Scottish Power. This commitment ensures delivery of up to 175 megawatts of clean wind energy by August 2004. Jorge Carrasco, Seattle City Light new superintendent, has said he is committed to delivering reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible energy.

    Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to release plans soon that will detail a stronger pursuit of renewable energy development. Oregon currently ranks sixth nationally in wind-energy capacity, with the capability to add much more.

    Moving forward

    Washington state is making progress in implementing alternative energy and building on the momentum of successful programs in the United States.

    Since 2000, Sparling has collaborated on over 10 sustainable projects in Washington, including feeders for the installation of 3,200 square feet of photovoltaics for Seattle City Hall. The city is now searching for $107,000 in funding to complete the rooftop photovoltaic project. The design and power distribution system has been completed.

    In Richland, a child-care center for U.S. Department of Energy staff will have a demonstration wind turbine and photovoltaics as part of the project.

    And in Southwest Seattle, a $24 million city joint-training facility will include a solar demonstration project.

    Solar and wind power energy installations are not cheap, and initial cost continues to be a major stumbling block. However, as the initial cost comes down, every new building owner should consider incorporating solar-generated electricity, sustainable designs and other green policies. These investments are not about saving money today, but about conserving the earth's resources for the future.

    Jim Duncan is chairman and CEO of Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm in Seattle and Portland.

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