Solar energy is still spoken of in terms of being in development and a promising source of energy for the world’s future. The announcement of placing solar panels on a building is still newsworthy in most areas across the US. The installation of solar panels on your home is met with curiosity and as a novelty rather than accepted as a viable choice based on economics. In general the solar discussion is summed up as a lot of future potential but as of yet not practical for mainstream application.
What is needed for Mainstream Implementation?
The two biggest arguments against mainstream implementation that are likely to be resolved in the future are cost of adaptation or installation and energy storage technology (for fully practical self-contained use, battery technology to store electricity needs to be further developed). A third problem that is not as simply addressed is suitability of climate and location. Areas without adequate direct sunlight on a regular basis will never be able to be completely self-reliant on solar technology although increased efficiency of photo voltaic cells is helping with that to some small degree.
The first two hurdles should no longer be considered obstacles. While most will say that is not true, there is ample evidence available to support the idea that a very large percentage of the US electric supply could currently be converted to solar energy in an economically feasible way. The second question of storage of electricity and need for batteries was answered some years ago and has been successfully implemented in widespread and large scale areas.
Grid Tie Inverters
The grid tie inverter is used to connect a home or businesses’ renewable energy (most commonly wind or solar) excess power generated back into the public utility grid. Common examples are when a home is equipped with solar panels that generate electricity during the day when nobody is at home and minimal power is being used, the power generated is fed through the grid tie inverter back to the power lines for use by another customer. During this process, the electric meter actually is turning backwards which supplies a credit for when power is needed in the evening or night and not being generated by the solar panels. This is set up according to a net metering agreement with the utility company and is used by tens of thousands of people already.
While the ultimate goal may be for fully self-contained systems that do not need to be tied to the grid at all, this is an effective and cost efficient solution already in place. Since the availability of a back-up power source is a desirable thing anyway, and virtually every building is already connected to the grid, the further development of batteries is far more a desirable objective than an actual need to proceed with more aggressive solar conversions.
Economic Feasibility of Solar Panels
The most frequently heard argument against solar power is that it is not actually economically feasible at this point. There is much discussion of the need to reduce the cost of high efficiency panels substantially before wide spread use is possible. There is substantial evidence however that argument is not really valid. Helped along by the fact that the cost for commercial solar panel installation dropped 15.6% since the beginning of 2013, the price for solar energy is now comparable to that of oil and coal fueled electric power plants. Simple shopping online will confirm cost effective uses for the home already.
An increasingly common home application is for solar hot water heaters. These solar heaters can save from 50% to 90% of the energy costs for hot water (depending on location and cost of power currently used, i.e. natural gas or electric). For comparison purposes, a typical electric water heater for purchase and annual cost for a family of 4 estimated at $497 per year. In 10 years, presuming the cost of electricity does not go up (which would be an unwise assumption) would be $5724. Compare that to a solar hot water system currently readily available for $3950 and power cost of approx. $500 for the entire 10 years still leaves leftover for any additional installation costs. This is also not even considering the many available tax incentives and government grants to offset the initial cost.
On a commercial level you can look at multitudes of studies that argue whether it is cost effective for a business to convert to solar power for its own consumption. It is likely the US Government has spent more on studies and funding studies than in direct incentives for implementation in the last 10 years, so there are many available. A look at the real world decisions of Fortune 500 companies may be demonstrative of what private sectors have concluded however.
Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, is in the process of installing solar panels on the roof tops on its stores all across the US, and has already begun conversions so that 75% of its stores in California will have their own solar panel arrays. While this commitment to social responsibility in the field of renewable energy can be applauded, it can also be presumed that a very efficient and fiscally tightly managed company such as Walmart is not doing this as a publicity stunt alone. They are far from alone in this endeavor with many big box stores and factories making use of the large available roof space to cut energy costs. Large corporate businesses do not make decisions to invest millions and millions of dollars unless there is an economic benefit available to them for doing so.
The Real Problem
So if it is demonstrated that major hurdles to implementation of solar power on a mainstream level are not factually based, why is the widespread implementation moving along so anemically? There are two reasons for that as well. The major energy companies currently working primarily with fossil fuels and the utility companies themselves. The traditional energy companies control huge political lobbies, as well as the huge utility companies currently responsible for supplying electric power to the US grid. In a January 2013 report, the utility companies themselves declare the advent and mass introduction of solar technology to be a force that could bankrupt the utility companies. A review of this report that managed to go nearly unnoticed in the press can be found here. These political problems may prove to be more difficult to overcome than any perceived technological difficulties.