July 12, 2001
Power users, producers turn toward the sun
By MICHAEL NELSON
Two billion people worldwide have no electricity, all of them living far beyond national power grids. Solar electricity is already the cheapest, quickest way to bring power to any home more than half a mile from conventional utilities. Solar will deliver power to these poorest people the most economically and with the least impact. When the poorest people have solar electricity, it will be affordable for the rest of us. Solar just might be a “next big thing.”
While the amount of sunlight in Washington doesn’t rival the American Southwest, solar electric modules produce electricity year round, even in the diffuse light of a cloudy Seattle climate. The U.S. Coast Guard relies on solar electricity for marine navigation lights, buoys and channel markers. Burlington Northern Railway uses solar-powered safety lights and switching equipment. Highway information signs are solar powered.
Anywhere electric reliability is critical, solar is the emerging answer.
Even Northwest homeowners are turning to the sun. According to John Mottel, owner of Rainshadow Solar on Orcas Island, at least 300 homes in the San Juan Islands rely on the sun for their electrical needs. Solar electric systems have found their way into backyards and onto rooftops from Republic in northeastern Washington to Clark County in the southwest part of the state.
Denise Zipperer, manager of the Republic branch of the Coulee Dam Federal Credit Union hasn’t paid a household electric bill in over 12 years of living with solar. Okanogan Electric Co-op promotes solar as a viable alternative to line extensions, as do several other Northwest utilities.
Seattle-based WesternSolar Utility Network is a co-op that serves a group of 26 Northwest utilities. WesternSUN purchases prepackaged solar electric systems directly from manufacturers. This reduces design costs for many applications. The underlying assumption is that if appliances were engineered on a one-of-a-kind basis, not many consumers could afford refrigerators. Member utilities pass the co-op savings on to their customers. As a cooperative, only WesternSUN members can take advantage of these savings.
The model is unique to the Northwest as is the region’s public power system, though co-ops have a long Northwest history, ranging from REI and Puget Sound Consumer’s Co-op to farm co-op’s such as Darigold.
Solar electric systems are sprouting up like mushrooms in Pierce, Snohomish and even in King counties. The net metering law passed by the Legislature three years ago is finally having a positive effect. Net metering requires Washington utilities to allow customers to spin their electric meters backwards, effectively storing summer sun for winter use.
A second kicker for solar from the Legislature came when it gave small renewable energy systems the same tax advantage that the big boys have enjoyed for several years. Now there are no sales taxes on solar electric systems in Washington. Both net metering and sales-tax exemptions make solar investments more attractive. At least four permits for solar electric systems have been granted in Seattle. Within the year, solar will be installed on maybe a half dozen Seattle rooftops. A little more global warming and who knows what will blossom.
Before dismissing this as the latest energy crisis-driven fad, consider the following: solar electricity is already the least-cost, clean energy option on the customer’s side of the meter. The consumer simply doesn’t have any other choices; gas and diesel generators are noisy sources of CO2 and nitrous oxides. Fuel cells are still in the pilot-project mode, and are at least two years out. Combustion turbines are too large for most households. Wind is improbable in an urban landscape. That leaves the consumer with the solar option.
The systems are UL-listed and have their own chapter in the National Electrical Code. Unlike fuel cells or turbines, after the capital outlay, the fuel is free. There are not many opportunities for conventional utilities in solar. Solar has been described by Clayton M. Christensen (author of the “Innovator’s Dilemma”) as a disruptive technology. As hybrid cars drive battery technologies forward there will become less reason for the consumer to bother with net metering. Unplugging in the city may become a viable option.
While volume and automation drive the cost of solar electricity lower, another factor is in play. All major manufacturers of solar technologies are bringing thin-film solar technologies to market. For twenty years companies like Siemens BP Solar, Solarex and Astropower have been developing advanced technologies that require far less materials, use simpler techniques and lend themselves to automation. These technologies are now market ready. Some of these technologies already have module costs in the $3 range.
While capital costs are still high, they are coming down, and will drop markedly as the industry begins to employ modern production techniques made possible by robotics, computers and automation. In 1955, solar electricity cost $1,755 a watt. By 1980, the cost was $20 a watt; now street prices for solar modules are about $4.50 a watt. And this is all without volume production.
Today, you can buy a one-kilowatt solar system for between $6,000 and $10,000, plus installation. In Seattle, one kilowatt of solar will produce about 1,000 to 1,200 kWh per year, the average per capita consumption of electricity worldwide. (In the Northwest, we use 10 times that amount. The first thing most solar users discover is the real value of conservation).
In places as diverse as New York, California, Hawaii and Maryland, a homeowner already pays less per kWh for solar-produced electricity than for electricity from their local utility. It’s not that these states have great sun, but rather that they have high power rates. Most of all, these states have legislatures willing to invest in a renewable energy future. These states have incorporated environmental externalities into energy rates, and are sharing in the investment risks homeowners are taking when choosing the solar electric option.
Beyond the U.S. border, solar is being pursued aggressively. Germans, whose entire nation is cloudier than Washington state, are leading the world in investments in solar technology. Many German cities are willing to sign power purchase agreements with homeowners for rooftop solar power that will assure that the system pays for itself in as little as five years. Given that solar electric systems have lifetimes well over 30 years, this represents 25 years of profitability for the German homeowner.
Solar electric systems aren’t just a consumer item in Washington; it’s been a part of the economy since the 1980s. Trace Engineering, Hart Interface and Dynomote were all Washington inverter companies that have been swallowed up by bigger companies from out of state. Zantrec, which took over Trace and Hart Interface, is a Canadian company. Inverters are part of the solar system that converts direct current into utility-grade AC power. Without inverters, solar electric homes would not even be able to use conventional appliances, much less sell power to the utility grid.
Siemens Solar of Germany grows 40 percent of the world’s supply of PV crystal in Vancouver. This German company was once a private business that belonged to a local, Bill Yerkes, back in the 1970s. Arco bought the company from Yerkes, then sold it in the mid 80s to Siemens.
Applied Power of Lacey is the largest solar systems integration company in the U.S. Systems integration companies design and build complete solar systems from parts made by companies like Trace and Siemens Solar. Applied Power was started by another local, Tim Ball. It’s now owned by Shott Glass of Europe. They are moving their main offices to California, where the American action is.
At least three trends can be spotted here. One, the sun is rising on solar, here and around the globe. Two billion people are enough to drive a market, if they can access capital. Two, it is probably a good long-term investment, both on the stock market and on the rooftop. It is the only way a homeowner can get a fixed-price, 25-year contract on the cost of power. Three, while conventional energy costs are going up, the cost of solar is dropping. Washington-based solar companies are on the move, and that move is out of state. We may be loosing the next big thing, because we gave it too little reason to stay.
Michael Nelson is executive director of WesternSUN, a solar co-op that serves a group of 26 Northwest utilities, purchasing prepackaged solar electric systems directly from manufacturers.
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