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Solar future? We could use it now

Initially I intended to submit a piece one year ago that would have coincided with the 50th anniversary of the invention of the solar electric panel. The problem has been that I’m just too darn busy helping the community install solar panels to sit down and write a column. But now, after reading completely off-the-wall opinions about solar in The Union three times over the past few months, I’ve gathered my materials, set aside a few hours on the weekend, and now I’m ready to enlighten.

GOVERNMENT

The silicon photovoltaic (PV) panel is a unique American invention that not only makes groundbreaking space programs possible, but here on earth is also somewhat responsible for our military capabilities, our communications, our continued oil supply and our thriving U.S. economy. Unveiled on April 25, 1954, by Bell Laboratories, PV panels first proved, their durability and cost effectiveness in space. The first Sputnik satellites relied on batteries that went dead after one week. The Vanguard U.S. satellite was launched in 1958 ” with solar panels as an afterthought ” and was still faithfully transmitting an unprecedented one year later. By the Vietnam War, the CIA was using camouflaged PV panels to help power clandestine monitors on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the 1980s the Coast Guard decided to convert all buoys and navigational aids to PV power. Today, the White House has 167 American-made PV panels feeding into the utility lines and the Defense Department has identified over 3,000 megawatts (that’s 3 billion watts) currently produced by diesel generators that solar could produce cheaper. Our entire military depends on solar-powered satellites to collect data, send communications and guide weapons. All those special unmanned aircraft crucial to the war on terror located down the road at Beale AFB? Not without solar.



INDUSTRY

After initial funding from government, solar took off in the mid-’70s when oil companies began using PV on offshore drilling platforms, on land-based remote wells and pipelines to stop corrosion and also to power remote surveying devices looking for more oil. At the same time, the train industry caught on and began using PV to power safety signals and track circuitry. In 1974, the first solar-powered microwave repeater was built and the telecommunications industry was revolutionized, bringing phone service to remote locations worldwide. The mid-’70s also saw the invention of the solar pump, bringing water to dying populations in Africa. Today, highway contractors use PV power to alert motorists with flashing text message signs. The entire satellite communications industry, along with our domestic oil supply, forms the backbone of our growing technology-based economy, and both are dependent on solar power.




RESIDENTIAL

You may have noticed most of the applications up until now are remote locations where utility lines are absent. However, all of that investment has brought the cost of PV power down and enhanced the technology. The current energy payback for a PV panel (the time it takes to recoup the energy put into its manufacture) is around 4 years. And contrary to one of last month’s pro-nuclear opinion columnists, who declared PV has a lifespan of 10 to 20 years, no one actually knows how long solar panels will last. Natural degradation reduces output less than 1 percent annually, so the same panels installed today may be working in 2105! Furthermore, manufacturers provide warranties that guarantee every solar panel today will still be producing 80 percent of its wattage rating 25 years after purchase. Manufacturers also guarantee 90 percent output after 10 years. They won’t offer that if they aren’t absolutely positive that the output will actually be higher. With that longevity, coupled with state incentives and a highly competitive local solar market, the price of local solar power can be cheaper than PG&E, even when financed.

Some pessimists say that tax credits, rebates and government subsidies are akin to using “other people’s money” to make solar falsely affordable. In reality, an unsubsidized energy market has never existed in this country. Massive tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power are maintained or increased in the 2006 federal budget while funding for solar programs are reduced. State incentives actually only begin to level the playing field for solar and other safe, clean renewable energy fuels. As a result, solar, water, wind and geothermal together provide 25 percent of California’s electricity needs.

So, due to our unique regional market, cheap solar power competes with expensive grid power, while the rest of America is still experiencing just the opposite. But don’t worry. They’ll catch up.

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Martin Webb lives in Penn Valley where he operates a solar-powered renewable energy business with an annual electric bill of zero. He may be reached via e-mail at martin@planitsolar.com.


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