Lower prices, technology create new dawn for solar energy

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Colorado Springs is renowned for its climate, with more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Yet, despite an ideal climate for both solar heating and solar electric generation, few city residents have installed such systems in their houses, or in their businesses.
But that may be changing. Spurred by rebates and tax credits, the rising cost of utility services and concern about global warming, solar seems poised for a breakthrough.
Rocky Mountain Solar specializes in photovoltaic generating systems, arrays of solar cells linked together to produce electricity from sunlight. A typical residential system consists of 20 solar panels, wired together to produce as much as 17.7 kilowatts per day.
Cost to buy and install: $28,000.
In addition, if a homeowner wishes to rely exclusively on the panels for electricity, it would be necessary to purchase batteries to store power for use at night, or during cloudy or rainy days.
That’s why most new installations are “net metered,” taking advantage of technology that enables surplus electricity from the solar panels to flow into the regional power grid.
Customers remain connected to the grid and draw from it when needed. The house’s electric meter monitors the amount of electricity contributed to the grid and credits the customer’s account accordingly. At the end of the month, the customer gets a bill reflecting use and generation of power.
Colorado Springs Utilities supports net metered photovoltaic installations and offers customers who choose to do so a substantial rebate.
According to CSU, “Solar electric panels, or photovoltaics, convert the renewable energy of the sun into useful electricity that is pollution-free and avoids burning fossil fuels. Although the technology is mature, reliable, and relatively maintenance-free, it is still expensive compared to conventional power generation. The Renewable Energy Rebate Program supports and encourages customers to install solar PV generating systems at their homes and businesses, which helps protect the environment, diversifies our energy supply, creates energy independence and reduces our summer peak capacity requirements.”
For every watt of installed capacity, CSU pays $3.75. Combined with new federal tax credits for solar (30 percent of the system cost, up to $2,000 for residential; unlimited for business), the RERP could make solar PV an attractive energy solution.
CSU also suggests that, to obtain the full benefit of solar PV, homeowners should also invest in energy-efficient appliances, compact fluorescent bulbs, and carefully monitor the house’s electrical consumption.
The CSU rebate plus the tax credit will cover about half of the cost of a 3.8 kilowatt system. According to CSU, a properly installed 3.8 kilowatt system, located to take maximum advantage of solar radiation, will provide enough electricity to meet all of the electrical needs of a typical Colorado Springs single-family house.
Clearly, not every house is so situated that a maximally efficient solar array can be installed, but for those that are, it may be an attractive option.
Moreover, owners of such systems may experience an “Al Gore moment” – the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping the environment. Solar industry sources have calculated that every 100 kilowatt-hour of averted conventional electrical energy production prevents the release of 130 pounds of global warming gases.

Passive Solar Heating

According to Rocky Mountain Solar, a passive solar home is any home with sufficient thermal mass to store heat from the sun during the day which is radiated back into the living structure during the night. A conventional home can be a passive solar home if the house has

  • A long side facing south
  • Most of the windows on the south side
  • Few or no windows on the north side
  • Materials that can store heat (concrete, stone, brick, etc.)
  • Good insulation.

When properly designed and constructed, the passive solar home costs far less to heat than a conventional home.
After enjoying some popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s, passive solar construction fell out of favor. The massive window walls, combined with solar storage devices called ‘trombe walls ‘created awkward, impractical interior layouts. Moreover, many of these early designs resulted in houses that overheated in the summer, and didn’t distribute heat evenly in the winter. Even in sunny climates like Colorado’s, relatively low heating costs discouraged solar installations.
But this may change in the future. Soaring utility costs, driven by the ever-increasing price of natural gas, may lead builders to incorporate modern passive solar designs in new houses.
One such design that employs vented concrete blocks to store the sun’s warmth, dispenses with trombe walls altogether, and might radically shrink home heating costs. According to Rocky Mountain Solar, incorporating this technology into new construction would add between 2 percent and 4 percent to the price of a typical home.

Solar Hot Water

Solar water heating systems have enjoyed limited popularity for many years. Until a few years ago, they were notoriously buggy, unreliable, and short-lived.
But now, according to the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association, most of the problems have been overcome.
Today’s solar hot water systems convert sunlight into heat and transfer the heat with a fluid through the solar collectors on the roof to heat water. This may reduce the cost of heating water in a typical house from 50 percent to 80 percent. A typical installation will cost less than $4,000.
A properly installed system will require little maintenance and has an expected life of more than 20 years.
A single hot water system can offset the equivalent of 40 percent of the carbon emissions of a car, giving you yet another “Al Gore moment.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com