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.

The Taylors
The Taylors says:
Jul 10, 2012 05:05 PM
we have some solar blossoming here in arizona, check out a recent previous hcn. in gila bend country. what we also need, badly, in arizona, is some good politicians like a we had back in the days of the udalls and even barry goldwater. politicians who cared about the state of arizona and getting things done. not the current crop of pendejos we have running this state. looking at your photo accompanying this article i would judge you are related to the great udall clan that originated in n.e. arizona and who did alot for arizona and the nationa as a whole. keep the fire burning.....
Ronald Sering
Ronald Sering says:
Jul 11, 2012 12:44 PM
It seems as though solar energy has become mired in the politicization that seems to pervade Washington these days. Solar is supported by one party, tossed off as irrelevant by another.
W John Faust &
W John Faust & says:
Jul 11, 2012 02:20 PM
Thanks for the outburst. Many of us mutter about the suicidal fossil fuel path we myopically follow. The status quo clearly has a death grip on the decision making process. As many commentators have noted, empires tend to die this way. We may not have to wait too long.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch says:
Jul 12, 2012 12:54 PM
The reason we're so far behind is that the Administration has chosen to use the time-honored approach of leaning on our public lands for RE development and shoveling out subsidies to the Big Oil and Big Bailout sectors to build remote industrial zones on desert habitat--the least efficient, most costly, most bound-to-fail, and most environmentally damaging choice they could make. It's not about what's possible or most effective,it's about keeping the Lords of the Fossil Fuel Era well-fed. Solar on rooftops and in the built environment, not on public lands!
The Taylors
The Taylors says:
Jul 12, 2012 02:02 PM
janine's point that solar (and wind turbines, etc) should be on rooftops and already developed landscape is the best idea. this would be a win win situation. sustainable energy and no more loss of wildlife habitat, wildlife migration corridors. better "happy hunting grounds" for we who hunt. but we need drastic changes in politicians. this country is in the worse condition politically i have ever seen in all my 65 years. you can't have a successful marriage without "giving in a little". politics should be the same, give a little to get alot, or at least get something done. muchos pendejos que no hacen nada.
John Handzo
John Handzo says:
Jul 20, 2012 10:15 AM
Everyone talks about the panels and generation of the power. This is easy for homeowners to understand. I believe the lack of transparency on how to connect rooftop solar to the home and grid is the problem to implementing solar power in the USA. Also, I think there are legal issues from electric power utilities that impede installation especially when connecting to the grid. No one talks about the regulations that public utility commissions and state legislatures have passed to protect the utility power generators. Homeowners fear the potential legal ramifications for connecting solar to their home and the grid!
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch says:
Jul 20, 2012 10:54 AM
You are right--the utilities and their "regulators" make it harder because they are protecting the status quo and the built-in return they get on transmission and on their energy monopolies. We have to demand policy changes that make it easier for energy democracy to thrive. http://solardoneright.org/[…]/
Lloyd Pearson
Lloyd Pearson says:
Sep 09, 2014 11:11 AM
Through the end of August 2014, I have returned 950 KwH to Excel Energy than I have used. The last 5 months have averaged around 500 KwH per month more than I used returned returned so there is definently some seasonality. I have never gone beyond the Tier 1 pricing strategy since I put the new rooftop system up, and the swatch out from first generation to second generation micro converters made a major difference over prior 3 years production.

The best thing is that I can look my son (combat medic in Iraq and then Afghanistan) and my son in law (forward infantry scout in Iraq, survivor IED attack on Humvee) in the face and tell them I am doing all that I can to save energy. For while I know it is not a one for one trade off, anything we do helps bring our troops home.

By the way, I am a Conservative, so you can see that some of us actually do more than talk about the environment.