What Solar Power Has to Offer

08/01/2008 |

What makes solar power so appealing? Read on to find out.

Paint-On Solar Systems?
In Wales, while working on ways to make steel more resistant to degradation in sunlight, a Swansea University student discovered a way to make paint harness energy and convert it into electricity. Dr. Dave Worsley, a reader in the Materials Research Centre at Swansea University's School of Engineering, is now investigating ways of painting solar cells onto flexible steel surfaces used for cladding.

In Newark, NJ, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) researchers developed a solar cell that can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets. "The process is simple," says lead researcher and author Somenath Mitra, professor and acting chair of NJIT's Department of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences. He says that consumers will print sheets of these solar cells with inexpensive inkjet printers to create their own power stations.

When it comes to renewable energy, solar power is definitely picking up speed. With more and more buildings taking on this new technology, solar power is becoming realizable for many facilities professionals.

What makes solar power so appealing? For starters, its list of advantages continues to grow. A big one on the list: utility cost stability. "The price of sunlight cannot be raised, unlike the price of oil and gas," says Steven Strong, founder and president of Harvard, MA-based Solar Design Associates. Solar power also leads to pollution prevention if it's a point source, says Gregg Casarrini, market research manager at Conergy Americas, Denver. And, as another added plus, you're not using utility power. You can also take advantage of peak shaving if your load is highest during peak energy-use hours.

Besides the bottom-line and environmental benefits, your organization's corporate image can also profit when you show an interest in renewable energy.

In terms of cost, solar power, according to Casarrini, is more expensive than other renewable options. "But, significant cost reductions are being achieved every year," he emphasizes. "The key is that it can be deployed almost anywhere, whether it's on a customer site or on a utility site. Wind, geothermal, and hydro cannot." Strong addresses the issue of cost by saying that solar power is expensive when you compare it to the cheapest electricity available (from dirty coal). "But, if the system is partly paid through the marketing budget, the media attention per dollar can outpace other marketing techniques, and it generates clean electricity." It's all in how you look at it. Of all renewable-energy options, Strong points out that solar is the most widely distributed when it comes to customer-sited options.

State and local incentive programs can help fund solar projects, but these programs differ significantly. (Strong recommends visiting www.dsireusa.org to learn about these solar programs.) In states that don't offer incentives, initial costs can be pretty high. So, it's a good idea to investigate incentives before you decide whether or not you can afford solar power.

When it comes to knowing whether or not solar will work on your site, Strong says that a "clear, single plane of roof with an unobstructed, un-shadowed view of the southern sky (in the northern hemisphere)" is the best configuration for solar-panel installation. Even though an unobstructed plane is ideal, he says that, with today's modern systems and options, most solar panels can work around some obstructions without severely impacting performance. Strong's helpful hint: Each peak kilowatt of solar-rooftop generation requires between 100 and 120 square feet of roof space.

Casarrini points out that strange or difficult roof angles or gables could complicate installation. "Flat roofs are fine; mounting systems can easily be tilted to the optimal angle," he says.

Leah B. Garris (leah.garris@buildings.com) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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