By David A. Kelm
Solar energy has long been relegated to the hippies living in the geodesic home out in the woods or the weird “off the grid” guy at the end of the block whose 1988 pickup truck smells like a Chinese restaurant because it has been converted to run on used restaurant oil. Improvements in technology, changing attitudes about renewable energy sources and reduced investment costs, though, are resulting in boom days for solar energy projects.
Solar energy is part of the nation’s effort to develop sustainable energy sources that produce lower carbon emissions and that reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Solar, bio-fuels, wind, natural gas and new, advanced design nuclear are part of the sustainable energy effort that has seen some successes and a few setbacks.
Large scale solar projects are gobbling up land (possibly to the detriment of farming) throughout the West as larger and larger installations add megawatts to the grid. There are burgeoning companies that are attempting to scale the cost of solar for the average business or homeowner. And, of course, there are companies that have flamed-out spectacularly like Solyndra that stuck U.S. taxpayers with $535 million in loan guarantees.
Solar installations, though, continue to set records each year. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates there is now enough solar electric capacity to power 1.7 million American homes and the residential solar market had one its best years in 2013. Solar array installations increased 27 percent over 2012 and overall costs dropped to approximately $3 per watt, which is nearly the same cost of building a coal-powered plant.
As with every other segment of the energy economy, solar energy development, installation and maintenance results in more jobs and increased revenue. The Solar Foundation found nearly 120,000 U.S. jobs directly linked to solar or an increase of 13 percent since 2011. There are approximately 6,000 businesses in the U.S. devoted to solar energy. Additionally, community colleges and universities are beginning and enhancing training and education programs devoted to solar technology.
In Illinois, the Illinois Solar Energy Association reports that there are over 160 solar companies working in Illinois and Illinois ranked 13th in the nation for installed solar capacity in 2012. During the same year, solar energy saw a record $27 million invested for solar installations at homes and businesses in Illinois.
Locally, it was announced in early November that Maldaner’s restaurant installed solar panels on the downtown building’s roof in a partnership with Lincoln Land Community College and the Illinois Green Economy Network. The effort, as reported in the State Journal-Register, was financed with grant money from IGEN, a rebate from City Water, Light and Power and federal tax credits. CWLP’s Solar Rewards program offers rebates for homeowners of up to $7,500 in addition to commercial rebates of up to $15,000.
While the Maldaner’s install was largely supported with public funding and the support of LLCC and CWLP, there are on-going efforts to reduce the barriers and costs for businesses and homeowners to enter the solar energy market. A major hurdle for small solar efforts, such as a home or small business, has been the overwhelming cost to convert to solar. However, since 2011 the average price of a solar panel has dropped 60 percent. Additionally, a number of corporations are betting the small solar market will continue to grow as they ramp up panel production and add installers throughout the United States.
With solar technology costs dropping and more people seeking to install small arrays for home or business use, some states are beginning to review how excess solar electricity is handled and if aging grids can accept the growing solar watts. In Hawaii, where the sunshine is plentiful and the waves bitchin’, solar energy capacity has doubled every year since 2005. In an article published in the International Business Times, it was reported that the Hawaiian Electric Company in September informed customers that it could no longer guarantee that solar systems would be connected to the utility grid. The stated fear was that there is so much solar power being generated by residential systems; the grid might become unstable as solar power exceeds the power generated by local power plants.
Solar energy, particularly small-scale installations, appears to be one of the energy sectors to watch in 2014 and beyond. As energy consumers continue to look for alternative sources and governments take an “all-of-the-above” approach to broadening the domestic energy portfolio, solar is poised to become a break out producer. In addition to further damaging regulations of the coal industry resulting in the closing of more coal production, solar production is becoming less expensive and technologically capable of producing usable, sustained electricity. More than likely, many more homeowners and business owners will join Maldaner’s in taking advantage of solar electricity in the coming year.
David A. Kelm is an attorney from Springfield with experience in environmental law.