Vol 7 No. 37 - June 6, 2007

Going solar in the Sunshine State
By Louise Bolger
sun staff writer

It seems like Florida is sunny all the time. There’s so much sun that I frequently find myself wishing for a nice overcast day, with just enough moisture to give me an excuse to stay indoors and clean out my closets. Well, the Sunshine State may not have enough cloudy days to get to all your closets, but there of plenty of sunny days to generate quite a bit of solar power.

Everyone wants to save the planet these days, and one of the most prominent and acceptable methods of generating renewable energy is through solar power. You would think that solar power is a no brainer. Sun in varying degrees is everywhere, it’s free and converting it into energy is pretty simple. Sunlight is converted to DC energy through the use of solar panels; it is then changed to AC energy and stored in batteries. So why is it that in one of the sunniest states in the country most of us are only heating our swimming pools with solar energy?

In spite of voluminous federal and state rebate programs intended to encourage individuals and businesses to use solar power, it is still a hard sell with very little if any economic benefit. The biggest problem is the cost to install a solar system with the right technology to provide adequate power for a home or business.

A recent example published in the New York Times uses a New Jersey homeowner with a $100 a month electric bill purchasing a system for about $54,000. After a combined state and federal tax credit the system’s cost is $33,532. But if you prorate the cost and compare it to the savings it will take between 11 and 22 years before you would see a savings. The average national payback is 14 years. Of course, if you live in the desert or sunny Florida, your payback could be faster, but you still need to expend the funds for the installation.

Making solar conversion even less attractive to the average homeowner is the cost of the system, which has not been dropping. An incentive program two years ago in Germany created a worldwide shortage of the silicon-based devices, and demand is still ahead of supply.

In addition, solar energy in quantity requires huge installations. It has been estimated that an area 60 square miles in central Oregon would have to be covered with solar cells in order to meet the present electric needs of the state. Even if that was a possibility, the big problem is how to store significant amounts of electricity when the sun is not available to produce it.

None of this is to say that we as a nation and as individuals shouldn’t try to find a way to conserve energy. After all solar energy uses little or no resources, creates no pollution and the sun doesn’t raise its rates, even if the solar panel manufacturers do.

But until the technology finds a way to overcome some of the inherent problems, it won’t matter how many tax rebates are offered. It’s just not going to happen on a large scale. The Florida Solar Energy Center’s Web site will give you quite a bit of information related to this state. If you want an online calculator to determine the approximate cost to install a solar system in your home and compare it to current utility rates, check out www.findsolar.com. And www.dsireusa.org will provide rebate information nationwide.

There’s no doubt that the use of solar energy is making its way into the national mainstream, but at the rate it’s going, you’ll see men on Mars before you see solar panels on North Shore Drive.

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