High Noon for solar

  • Randy Udall

 

You know what fries my bacon? In 2011, Germany installed more solar power in one year than Americans have in 50. If it were just the industrious Germans, I could probably handle it. But the laid-back, Fiat-driving Italians did the same thing. The Italians!

The technology was invented at Bell Labs back in the 50s, when Eisenhower was president. Solar photovoltaics is as American as the hot dog is, but our country has never mounted a sustained effort to commercialize it. It’s as if Steve Jobs invented a cool phone some years ago, then put it on a dusty shelf to be ignored for a handful of decades.

Thanks to NASA, we know that solar is the best way to power a satellite. It’s also great for ocean buoys and highway signs and off-grid cabins. But unlike wind energy, which meets 10 percent of Wyoming and Colorado electricity demand, solar has yet to achieve 1 percent in any state.

So here’s the question: Is solar just a cute diversion, like having a llama carry your backpack, or does it have the oomph to make a serious dent in the energy appetite of a populous country?

Is solar a toy or a tool?  A llama or a mule?

The world may have learned the answer on a sunny weekend this May, when tens of thousands of solar installations on rooftops, factories, churches and farm fields in Germany produced 22 gigawatts of electricity. That’s a stunning amount of power, equal to that provided by 20 large nuclear or coal plants, as much power as takes to run the Rocky Mountain states.

The solar storm sweeping Europe has been driven by innovative policies that guarantee solar owners 20 years of lucrative payments. In America, we’ve always been told, “Keep your hands off that power line.” In Europe, governments encouraged their citizens to “withdraw your money from the bank and redeploy it on your roof.” And so they did, to the tune of $150 billion.

Last year, Italy installed more solar every few months than California has in 50 years. Homeowners, church congregations, retirees, businessmen … anyone can play, and many have. Farmers have been particularly keen. Why grow hay, when solar is 10 or 20 times more lucrative?

This boom has been all the more remarkable because suntans are rare and clouds are common in northern Europe. In contrast, a typical roof in the Rockies receives a deluge of sunlight, often exceeding 100 horsepower at high noon. Until recently little was captured for good use. We’ve dammed all our rivers, but never considered our roofs.

It’s not that Americans don’t like solar. On the contrary, it appeals to veterans, vegans, rednecks, techno-geeks, enviros, survivalists and hedge fund managers. But until recently, most of us haven’t had much use for it, because it was too pricey.

But costs have plunged. A system that once was $20,000 now sells for $8,000, thanks in part to China. Numerous companies will lease such a system to you, no money down, guaranteeing you lower bills from day one. Unlike cars, which always need attention, solar has no moving parts. This is smokeless fire, as free of trouble as of carbon. It’s a sexy technology, well worth marrying.

And it’s getting a new look. Kit Carson Electric recently dedicated a 1.5 Megawatt system near Taos that will help power 30,000 homes. San Miguel Power Association in western Colorado is building a $4 million system of similar size to serve the resort town of Telluride. In the last decade, Holy Cross Energy customers have installed $30 million worth in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys of Colorado.

Here in the Rockies, solar remains twice the price of wholesale power, but for retail customers generating your own is both a profitable and thought-provoking proposition. Someone once said that energy is the original currency. If so, what is money? The dollar is supposed to be a store of value, but as Yogi Berra once said, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

Experts keep telling me inflation is low. But why is gold $1,600 an ounce, and a loaf of bread as expensive as a gallon of gas? Could it have anything to do with the way politicians are printing money -- $5 trillion worth of new debt since 2008?

I’m not sure. But I’ve run the numbers, and they suggest that a solar electric system could pay me 5 percent for decades to come. No, the sun doesn’t shine at night, but it comes up fairly reliably every morning. Maybe this could be a good partnership, the sun and me.

Randy Udall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and consults about energy in the Roaring Fork Valley of western Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.