Let the Sun Shine In

Solar Products Offer a Clean Alternative

The Earth has a fever. And as humans continue to dump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, primarily through the gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, its temperature continues to rise. It's a scientific fact: Global warming is a reality, and we, as energy consumers, are at least in part to blame.

Fortunately, there's a simple cure to this smog-induced malady: solar power. Photovoltaics—the solar cells that convert sunlight into “clean” electricity—have been used with considerable success to power everything from watches and calculators to cars and satellites. According to the Worldwatch Institute, solar power is now the planet's fastest-growing energy source. The sale of photovoltaics expanded more than 40 percent in 1997, and the solar-energy industry as a whole has grown at an annual rate of 16 percent since 1990. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) reports that nearly 250,000 families in the developing world have turned to household-scale photovoltaic systems for power; and larger-scale photovoltaic or solar-wind hybrid systems are being installed in remote villages worldwide as a cost-effective—and pollution-free—solution to power needs.

According to Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, 70 percent of the photovoltaic cells produced in the United States are shipped overseas, primarily to energy-deprived third-world countries. “Two billion people in the developing world don't have electricity,” explains Sklar. “Another billion get electricity less than 10 hours a day, usually when they don't want it. That's been our market.”

A Level Playing Field

But that doesn't mean solar energy has failed here in the U.S. As the nation's electric utilities become deregulated, allowing open competition between power suppliers where once-regulated monopolies ruled the playing field, more and more people are turning to the sun for their power needs. In addition, a Clinton administration initiative aims to have photovoltaic systems installed on one million rooftops by 2010. The program's tax credits and other incentives will encourage private energy companies, as well as state and local governments, to invest in solar technology.

Ron Sundergill, an energy and transportation expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, points out that federal funds for solar research and development are necessary if solar energy is to become economically attractive to those who could just as easily hook up to the conventional grid. “The industrial process is still rather costly,” says Sundergill. “If you don't have sufficient money flowing into the industry, it's going to be a long time before solar energy becomes competitive on a wide scale.”

Ultimately, says ASES spokesperson Susan LeFever, whether solar electricity succeeds down the line is up to consumers. “One of the downsides is the cost,” says LeFever, “but the more you buy, the more cells they make and the cheaper they become.” Currently the going rate for a photovoltaic panel is between $3.50 and $5 per watt—too high to compete with cheaper conventional electricity rates, but far better than the nearly $100-per-watt rate of the late 1970s and early '80s. According to John Schaeffer, CEO of Ukiah, California-based Real Goods, a company on the frontline of the solar industry for more than 20 years, the price should soon be whittled down even further. “If it gets down to $1 a watt, which won't be too far away, solar power will be cheaper than buying electricity on the grid,” he says.

Until then, says LeFever, homeowners can expect to spend about $25,000 to completely solarize an average home. That's expensive, but LeFever puts it in perspective: “How many people go out and spend $25,000 on a new car? And every month you have to add oil and gas to maintain it. With solar, the maintenance is very low and you're saving money on the utility bill.” And, in the long run, the buyer is paid back.

Those ready for such an investment would do well to consult the Solar Living Sourcebook. Available from Real Goods, and written by the company's staff, the 700-page book is billed as the “renewable energy bible” and goes through everything necessary—from the technical details to where to get the goods—to establish an independent home-energy system.

Photo: Solar Radio

Solar Gadgets

Other items available through Real Goods, which netted nearly $17 million in renewable energy-related sales in 1997, include an AM/FM solar-powered radio ($34.95); a solar mosquito guard ($8.95), which emits a high-frequency audio wave to drive away mosquitoes within a 12-foot radius; and a solar milk frother ($39.95), custom-made for the cappuccino addict with a sunny kitchen. Solar-powered fans ($195), which blow harder as the sun gets brighter, keep homes cool by pushing hot, stagnant air out of the attic. Portable power packs ($369) allow people on the run to plug their laptops directly into miniature solar panels. Hand-held solar flashlights ($29.95) operate for nearly three hours when fully charged, and can be mounted on a bicycle for nighttime rides. Solar battery chargers ($29.95) bring a pair of nickel-cadmium batteries to life in less than seven hours; and Swiss-made LeJour solar watches ($99.95), which run on either sunlight or ambient lighting, work for a month in total darkness.

United Solar Systems, a Troy, Michigan company on the leading edge of photovoltaic innovation and design, recently invented an award-winning solar roofing shingle. Subhendu Guha, the company's executive vice president, says this is no run-of-the-mill home improvement device. Guha says that because the shingles serve a dual purpose—weather protection and energy production—“they're more expensive, but they're a better value.” The shingles, which are sold individually ($139), can be grouped and wired together to provide as much energy as needed.

Evergreen Solar makes yard-adorning photovoltaic panels ($995 before rebates) that are connected directly to your home's circuit breaker. If the panels generate more power than you need, your utility company will buy the excess energy and owe you money at the end of the month.

For swimmers, Albuquerque, New Mexico-based AAA Solar offers sun-powered pool systems ($1,075 to $2,490) designed to keep outdoor pools clean and heated. The company also sells a Burns-Milwaukee Global sun oven ($200). Guaranteed to keep food on the table no matter what the weather, the lightweight, portable contraption can reach temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the 20th century nears its end, some people are preparing for what they fear will be a total power-grid meltdown. Could solar energy—whether provided en masse via photovoltaic shingles or in small doses through individually powered products—serve as a safety net? “I don't know what's going to happen, but something is,” says AAA Solar owner Jeff Schmitt. “And you can hedge your bets with solar.”

Schaeffer says the Y2K problem is driving Real Goods' sales through the roof. “The phone's been ringing off the hook. Everybody's afraid that the power's going to go down when

the millennium clock turns.” As far as he can see, however, there is no reason for concern. All you have to do is turn to the sun. “The fact is,” says Schaeffer, “solar works now. It's not some environmentalist's pipe-dream of the future.”