- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Rhone A. Resch is investing in the power of the sun. Twenty-eight panels that sit on the roof of his Northwest home make up a 6-kilowatt residential solar photovoltaic array, a system that converts light energy into electricity.

“This should reduce our electricity bill to zero,” says Mr. Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Northwest. “It should generate all the electricity that our home will need over the course of a year.”

With the rising price of electricity, solar energy has been getting more attention. Research allows for increased technology and a drop in cost.

The industry is on track to create more than 30,000 jobs in the United States in manufacturing, engineering and construction by 2015, according to Mr. Resch’s association. In 2005, the two largest U.S. markets, California and New Jersey, combined for $360 million in sales revenue.

The SunPower Corp. system on Mr. Resch’s home is the first installation on the East Coast using its modules. The black tiles sit on top of the roof facing south, occupying about one-fourth of the roof space. The panels are the most efficient on the market at changing sunlight into electricity, with 21.5 percent efficiency. Most panels are 15 percent efficient, Mr. Resch says.

An Internet interface monitors the demand for electricity from Mr. Resch’s home and monitors the amount of electricity produced by the solar system.

“We are able to see how much electricity we are using anytime during the day or night,” Mr. Resch says. “I will know, ‘Oh, the kids left the lights on in the basement.’ It encourages us to be more energy-efficient.”

The 5-foot-by-2-foot black panels Mr. Resch has on his home are 215-watt units, says Julie Blunden, vice president of external affairs at SunPower Corp. in San Jose, Calif. The other option is a 220-watt panel of the same size with a white back sheet.

“We’re trying to integrate panels on people’s roofs more discretely,” Ms. Blunden says. “The panels offer superior performance and aesthetics.”

Though silicon is used in the conventional technology, research is focusing on thin films, which use less material and can be manufactured more rapidly, says Richard King, team leader of photovoltaic research and development at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Thin films have more flexibility and could be placed easily on curved roofs. They also could be placed on stainless steel or plastic. Nanotechnologies also have the potential to be less costly and use less material, similar to thin films, Mr. King says.

Silicon is brittle and has to be rigid and flat. It is 10 times thicker than films..

“Silicon technologies are here today,” Mr. King says. “They just need to be better improved. You make them more efficient. You improve the manufacturing processing to make it quicker.”

Although the solar industry is starting to take off, Mr. King says his job is to bring the cost down so it can become competitive with conventional energy sources in the United States.

“It’s expensive to purify silicon,” Mr. King says. “You’ve got to frame it and install it. That equipment is expensive because we have small factories. If we had larger factories, we could bring the cost down.”

Though sunlight is free, Mr. King says solar energy is expensive because of the upfront cost of the systems, which usually cost $10,000 to $20,000.

“If you want to put a $20,000 system on your roof, it’s like putting an SUV on your roof,” Mr. King says. “Over a 25-year period, you divide the monthly payment.”

Even with spacing the cost over more than two decades, solar energy is two or three times more expensive than conventional energy, Mr. King says. Depending on where a person lives, incentives help defray the cost. The District and Maryland have grant or rebate incentives, but Virginia does not.

At least homeowners know how much it will cost to run the solar energy system 20 years from now, he says. The only cost will be periodic maintenance.

“Gasoline and natural gas are going up and down,” Mr. King says. “There is no way you will know what the cost will be 20 years from now; it could be 10 times more in 20 years. With solar, you know what you bought today is going to be all you paid.”

When the sunlight hits the solar panels on a roof, it produces a current similar to a battery, says Marc Cortez, director of marketing for Sharp Solar Group in Huntington Beach, Calif.

An inverter that sits by the utility meter converts the sunlight into standard electricity, he says. When the solar-powered system produces more electricity than is used by the home, a credit with the electricity company translates into money for the homeowner. If the solar panels do not generate enough power to fulfill the home’s needs, the home’s power is supplemented by the electric company.

Despite concerns about the cost of installing a system, it does allow homeowners to help the environment, he says.

“There are no fossil fuels or coal burned to produce electricity,” Mr. Cortez says. “It will produce energy tomorrow and energy the next day, as long as you own your house.”

The eventual deterioration of the system is something to consider, says Dan Thompson, president and chief executive officer of SPG Solar Inc. in San Rafael, Calif.

“If you had a 10-kilowatt system, if it degraded, at the end of 20 years, it would put out about 8 to 8.5 kilowatts, instead of the 10 it was putting out the first day.”

Although there may be some wear, the majority of the system will not need to be replaced. Even if an inverter would need replacement, it wouldn’t be terribly expensive, he says.

The visual aspect of panels on the roof may be as important as monetary considerations for some customers, says Victor Abate, vice president for renewable energy at GE Energy in Schenectady, NY.

GE Energy has designed fully integrated roof systems that mimic roofs of many kinds, including clay and tile. Asphalt is being developed. This factor may make customers more willing to place the systems on residential buildings.

“You can barely even tell it’s on the roof,” Mr. Abate says. “On top of a roof of a tall building, malls or commercial complexes, looks aren’t as big of an issue because it’s out of the view of the people.”

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