By Michael Beall, Guest Writer at NewWest.net
ABOUT THIS SERIES: Students from The University of Montana School of Journalism, with the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, reported and wrote stories for New West on the energy economy of the Rocky Mountain region. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.
Fueled by an aggressive federal tax credit program and a public desire to expand renewable energy development, solar energy continues to expand its presence in the Rocky Mountains. But despite its growth, relying on the sun remains a tiny fraction of U.S. energy generation.
And that growth in the U.S. is only part of a rapidly expanding global presence for solar energy.
“In 2009, we were a $39 billion global industry, and in 2010 we were a $71 billion global industry,” said Rick Gilliam, vice president of government affairs for solar firm SunEdison. “The industry is advancing and growing rapidly, but the traditional energy resources are pushing back against the development of new resources. They have a lot of money and political power, so it’s an uphill battle everywhere we go.”
Not only do these traditional power sources have a lot of money, they also make up a far larger portion of the power generation industry. According to Gilliam, solar energy still contributes less than 1 percent to the American power grid.
Much of the recent growth in the industry can be tied, ironically, to the recession. Solar power was one of the biggest financial winners in President Bush’s 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act that created an eight-year extension on tax credits of up to 30 percent of the installation costs to residential and commercial solar installations.
The Obama Administration has continued to invest in solar by focusing on research and development. Last summer, Obama said the U.S. Department of Energy had agreed to back $2 billion in loans for projects in the Rocky Mountain West, especially in the sun-drenched Four Corners region that receives more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
“It’s where the highest insulation is, the highest amount of energy falling on the earth from the sun in terms of low humidity and elevation. It’s the place where you get the most bang for your buck,” Gilliam said.
Harnessing the Sun
Gilliam hopes that recent government moves will help make solar energy a far larger player in the power game.
As of May 3, SunEdison has generated 463 million kilowatts of energy across the globe, abating some 582 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The company has projects worldwide, including the largest European solar farm in Rovigo, Italy, and has had a hand in developing 450 facilities.
But for all the hype, solar remains problematic. For one it is inconsistent and requires energy companies to operate a backup system to ensure that energy is available when it is needed, regardless of the weather.
“Solar is not a base-load generator, meaning you can’t rely on it 24/7,” said Troy Whitmore, director of external affairs at Colorado energy cooperative United Power. “People say that it could be a good peaking source, but it’s not necessarily the case in Colorado. We need our peaking power between 5 and 7 p.m. in the summer, and by that time solar has diminished in its ability to produce.”
United Power sells 1.3 billion kilowatt hours to six counties north of the Denver metropolitan area, utilizing mostly natural gas, coal and hydroelectric, but it also works with renewable sources like solar and wind, which contributes less than 10 percent.
“It’s highly subsidized in many areas of the country, and I’m not sure if the solar industry would be where it is today,” Whitmore said. “We need to spend our time developing batteries. At 10 o’clock at night there’s no solar generation happening, meanwhile you have natural gas, coal and hydro chugging along, so it’s the lack of availability.”
Gilliam admits solar can only supply some of the energy needs of the region, adding he hopes battery and other technology may evolve in coming years to allow storage of solar power.
“A solar panel is not going to generate solar energy during a 24-hour period, so you need some form of storage,” Gilliam said. “ Right now we’re using the grid. In ten years or so whether it’s batteries or some other form of storage, we’ll have various means of storing that energy.”
Beyond the need for consistent energy, solar also faces technical hurdles around deciding how to harness the sun’s energy.
There are three main forms of concentrating solar power: linear concentrators, dish-engines and power tower systems. All three systems use mirrors to absorb sunlight into receivers to heat fluids that power a generator or alternator in order to produce energy.
Using the sun as a heat source has been a tactic for centuries called “Passive Solar,” and it is the main factor in linear concentrators and power tower systems, but the alternative to fluid-based solar panels is photovoltaic technology, which converts sunlight directly into electricity. Photovoltaic technology is traditionally more expensive, but recent developments have lowered the cost of building solar cells with other materials rather than silicon such as cadmium and telluride.
The Way of the Future?
Residents in the Rocky Mountain West have increasingly turned to the subsidized solar energy to lower their individual electricity costs.
Kate McLaughry of Centennial, Colo., installed solar panels on her family home with public utility company Xcel Energy, which works alongside SunEdison by buying energy and distributing it along with power in the form of natural gas. The system has been producing maintenance-free solar energy in her home since January 2009.
“From the day our meter was turned on, we have been free from high monthly electric bills,” McLaughry said. “We have never doubted that we made the right decision.”
Xcel Energy currently buys 27 megawatts of power from two solar farms in San Luis Valley, Colo., and it’s planning to add two more facilities by 2012, increasing its solar energy output by 60 megawatts. Xcel Energy has avoided more than 41 million pound of carbon dioxide emissions in less than 18 months.
“The benefit of solar is that once you invest in it and it’s not even that expensive anymore, you’ve fixed your energy costs for 25 years or longer,” Gilliam said. “You know exactly how much your solar energy is going to cost 20 years from now. You can’t do that with any other fossil fuel source.”
Still, solar will need to prove itself able to operate without government help as the tax credits provided by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act are set to end in 2016. But in the wake of the gulf oil spill and the nuclear troubles in Japan, Gilliam believes that opportunities in solar and other renewable sources will only improve.
From her standpoint, McLaughry cannot think of any cons to her family’s decision to power their home with photovoltaic panels.
“The question that always arises is what do you think the payback period is going to be?” she said. “It’s beside the point. When we sent our two sons off to college, we didn’t ask what the payback period was going to be. It was the right thing to do. Solar energy will become, increasingly and obviously, the way of the future.”
Also in This Series: Geothermal Energy Projects: Booming and Moving Eastward
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Image of Boulder solar farm construction courtesy Flickr user Let Ideas Compete.Originally posted at NewWest.net