Solar energy technology is now more cost-effective

In the mid-1970s, at the height of the Middle East oil crisis, the nation’s leaders promised a solar power revolution that would ease the United States’ dependence on foreign oil and offer the hope of a cheap, endless supply of energy.

The solar revolution, of course, fizzled after the crisis ended and oil became relatively cheap and plentiful.

But some forty years later, experts say some of those early promises are actually bearing fruit because of improved technology and lower costs of the systems.

“Solar electric back in the ’70s and historically has not been cost-effective,” said Tim Anderson, the director of the Florida Energy Systems Consortium (FESC) at the University of Florida. “There needed to be improvements in manufacturing and in cell efficiency. Since 1980, every time the installed capacity has doubled, prices decreased 22 percent. Right now, the cost of (solar) electricity is competitive with the residential (electricity) prices we pay.”

The FESC was established to promote collaboration between energy researchers at 11 universities and help develop energy systems and technology.

Anderson said it is important to differentiate between the two types of solar systems. There is solar thermal, which converts the sun’s radiation into heat, and there is photovoltaic solar, which converts radiation into electricity.

Solar thermal is used mostly in water heaters and pool-heating applications.

Steven Morganti recently opened a showroom for Stiebel Eltron’s line of tankless and solar water heaters in Ocala.

The German company produces both solar thermal and photovoltaic panels but is concentrating on marketing thermal solar in the United States.

“This is a self-contained unit. They contain deionized water that is superheated and circulates around the tank and heats the water inside,” Morganti said.

He said solar thermal systems are among the most affordable solar systems available. The units start at about $3,200 and can be as much as $6,800, depending on how much hot water is needed.

“With a $6,800 unit you can do up to four bathrooms in a house with a lot of kids and lot of bathroom usage,” he said. “The up-front cost is what stops people from making the move, but if you are thinking long-term then you’re not going to lose anything. I think most people are starting to think about the long-term.”

Morganti said the solar heater, as a replacement for an electric heater, can pay for itself in a few years. Natural gas heaters, however, are still more efficient and a solar thermal unit would take years more of service to recoup the initial investment.

Morganti sells the solar water heaters wholesale to builders and contractors, but his showroom at 1100 SE 58th Ave. is open to the public.

He said he has received plenty of inquiries since opening last November.

Anderson, of the Florida Energy Systems Consortium agrees that thermal is currently the most affordable and efficient.

“You can put one on your rooftop that is very cost effective,” he said, adding that costs for commercial systems also are becoming more competitive with coal.

Those commercial systems could someday be widely used to produce wholesale electricity using the sun’s heat to make the steam that turns turbines.

“It’s not yet cost competitive with coal or gas, but the price is dropping,” he said.

Florida Power & Light has already jumped into commercial production of solar energy with its hybrid solar thermal plant in Martin County near Indiantown. The 500-acre site opened in November 2010 and is called the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center.

There, 190,000 solar thermal mirrors concentrate the sun’s heat to create the steam used to turn the turbines. The system works in conjunction with natural gas to power 11,000 homes a year, according to FPL.

“Florida Power and Light is the largest renewable energy company in the U.S. Not a lot of people know that. They own a substantial amount of all the U.S. wind power generated and they also own and operate a significant amount of solar thermal and solar electrical plants,” Anderson said, noting that the utility operates renewable energy facilities in Texas, North Dakota and in the Mojave Desert.

Photovoltaic solar systems, when compared to thermal, are much more complicated because they convert radiation directly into electricity.

The technology has taken a beating recently after the Solyndra episode. Solyndra, a California manufacturer of photovoltaic solar panels, declared bankruptcy in 2011 and defaulted on more than $500 million in taxpayer-funded government loans. The company developed a system to compete with traditional solar panels, but it could not compete on price as raw materials for the traditional panels dropped.

Adding fire to the issue was the cozy relationship some in the company had with the White House, bringing charges of crony capitalism into the debate.

But Anderson said the failure of Solyndra is not an indictment on the solar electric segment, which is a thriving business.

“There is no doubt that companies are learning how to get more capacity at a lower cost to the consumer. The free market it working. There is no reason to think they will not get (the cost) down to coal cost,” he said.

Stiebel Eltron is one of the leading providers of photovoltaic panels in Europe. The company has been developing the technology for decades as have other companies across Europe and Asia. Efficiency has soared, while price has dropped.

Still, the initial cost for residential photovoltaic systems can start at $30,000.

Retrofitting a home can be expensive and complex.

“Right now, the time to do it is during the design of the house, where you can decide where to place the system, in terms of wiring, in terms of mounting,” Anderson said.

Jerry Krebs, a retired University of Florida professor, has kept tabs on solar electricity since the 1970s.

Krebs, who along with his wife, Jeanne, recently built a home in Ocala, decided the numbers were right for him to build a net-zero home.

“I’m a penny pincher, I always want the biggest bang for my buck. I don’t always go cheap, but I want to know how long it’s going to take before I get my money back,” he said. “Back during the first energy crisis in the ’70s the cost of solar panels was out of reach.”

He interviewed several builders before he settled on Jim Bennett, owner of Bennett Construction Services.

Bennett and Krebs designed the 2,300-square-foot home from the ground up to be as efficient and cost effective as possible.

The walls of the southwest Ocala home are thicker than normal and use air and foam board for insulation. The windows are triple-paned and filled with argon gas. The attic space over the living area is airtight, with six inches of spray foam insulation covering the roof sheathing and between the ceiling rafters.

The home’s heating and air conditioning is a geothermal system that uses the earth’s constant temperature to regulate the home’s internal temperature.

But the heart of the home is the 42-panel photovoltaic solar system that powers the whole thing. The panels are on a barn near the home and currently produce more power than they use.

The Krebses have an electric meter from Sumter Electric Cooperative, but since moving in they have not needed to draw electricity from the grid. The excess power they produce is put back into the system and they are given a credit based on the wholesale price.

“Right now, they are in the banking period where there’s a lot of sun and the temperature is mild. Come July, they may have to draw electricity, but they should have enough banked to make it net-zero,” Bennett said.

While the high initial cost keeps some from considering solar electric, Bennett said more of his customers are considering the other energy conservation methods used in the Krebses’ home.

For Krebs, however, it was the culmination of a dream he’d had for nearly four decades.

“This was one of my bucket list items … I expect to live long enough to make my money back on the improvements I put in this house,” he said.

If the calculations he made were right, that should be in about 10 years.

“I don’t understand why people who live in Florida don’t do this a lot more,” he said.

Realistically, however, solar power has a long way to go before it can compete with traditional energy sources.

“We’re going to rely on coal and gas and other fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, but the technology in solar is improving and becoming more of a competitive option,” Anderson said.

Carlos E. Medina,