Solar Ships: Not A Pipe Dream Anymore

More and more businesses, homeowners and even utilities have seen fit to invest in solar installations in recent years. Increasing efficiency and declining costs have made many of these systems a worthwhile investment regardless of solar incentives.

But electricity, as critical as it is to modern society, still only represents a portion of the energy used, with a great deal going to heating and, in particular, transportation. Solar power has made some inroads into both, particularly with the recent development of mainstream electric cars, but this remains a small part of the market.

However, the BBC reports that one Australian company has taken some major strides toward bringing solar energy to one of the most important transportation sectors – shipping. Based in Castlecrag, New South Wales, to the north of Sydney, Solar Sailor has developed a variety of systems using solar installations to help reduce the fuel needs of boats ranging from smaller ferries to full-scale freighter ships.

While the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar has made headlines recently, nearing the completion of its circumnavigation of the globe using solar power exclusively, Solar Sailor takes a more pragmatic approach to the shipping industry. The company hopes to incorporate solar installations to reduce fuel consumption, rather than attempting to sell companies on technology that is entirely unproven for commercial-scale transportation purposes.

Part of this actually means relying on wind as much as solar power. Most of Solar Sailor’s designs actually incorporate solar installations into large sails that can be folded up while coming into port. However, while engines are running at a relatively low speed, batteries charged by these large solar arrays replace the traditional diesel and bunker fuel engines.

“[The bunker fuel used by larger freighters is] like tar, you have to heat it up to make it liquid so it will flow,” Robert Dane, the founder of Solar Sailor, told the BBC. “These incredibly powerful engines run on incredibly cheap but dirty fuel so what we can do in the short-term is to ensure they use less fuel.”

Projections for fuel savings look substantial as well. Solar Sailor is negotiating to fit a new ore freighter with three large “solar sails” that should save between 20 and 40 percent on annual fuel costs from wind power and between 3 and 6 percent from the solar arrays.

Business Green reports that Tûranor recently opened the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, where world leaders have discussed ways to encourage the adoption of renewables. At present, the steady pressure of high fuel costs seems that it might be the best solution.

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Local Solar Gains Momentum in California and New York

Much of the solar industry’s attention of late has been focused on the loss of important solar incentives from national governments, including the end of the 1603 grant program in the U.S. However, the Solar Energy Industries Association announced plans at the start of the year, just as the 1603 program was closing up, to shift its focus substantially toward the states rather than the federal government. The group even joined with the state-oriented Solar Alliance to further the interests of the industry.

Recent events have borne out the wisdom in that approach with the announcement of several new programs on the state and local levels that could prove similarly beneficial to solar installers without the stout opposition seen at the national level.

Early in January, KPCC reported that the Los Angles Department of Water and Power has settled on a new idea to support the city’s massive solar industry. Several of the city’s and the state’s solar incentives have run into issues with funding as interest at the original rates proved far higher than anticipated.

Nonetheless, looking to increase solar capacity, but wary of committing to the open-ended solar incentives that led to such rapid depletion in funding, the DWP has suggested the possibility of a feed-in tariff similar to an extent to that used in Germany. This policy would enable the DWP to purchase solar energy from building owners who add commercial solar installations at a premium price for an extended period. Unlike with residential solar installations, these contracts are generally quite large and allow for more predictable costs as well as production.
At present, the feed-in tariff is limited to a 10-megawatt demonstration project, but successful implementation of that could lead eventually to another 75 megawatts of rooftop solar installation and potentially as much as 600 megawatts.

The goal of the Los Angeles project, in large part, is to make efficient use of large rooftops on places such as apartment buildings, warehouses and stores. A similar policy has now gone into effect in New York City, according to PV Magazine.

The New York State Energy Research Development Authority and the New York Public Service Commission have joined forces to create a $150 million, 5-year program they hope could substantially boost investment in commercial solar installations in the city. Already, New York hosts solar installations on several of its landfills, but such a heavily built-up area features countless rooftops that could prove effective sites for such solar systems.

The state already has given out $30 million to 15 businesses, from solar installers to real estate developers, for the purpose of adding some major solar installations. Particularly in New York, where the electrical grid faces substantial demand and constant strain as that demand shifts throughout the day, solar systems on these larger buildings are appealing for stability purposes. By locating solar installations on buildings that are likely to use all of the energy produced, the city hopes to minimize the risk of too much electricity being put back into the grid.
New York state itself could soon see some major new solar incentives as well, as it looks to spur its solar sector past its smaller neighbor, New Jersey. The Albany Times Union reports that Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced his new NY-SUN Solar Program in his second State of the State address. The program would extend sales tax exemptions on solar installations to commercial customers from only residential customers. In addition, the state’s income tax credit for solar systems would be opened up to solar leasing, offering 12.5 percent of the annual cost of the lease.

These represent only small steps forward for solar, but they are also a marked difference from the prevailing winds at the national level.

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Large Bills = Large Solar System

As years go by, the cost of residential solar installations has fallen dramatically. As the technology has developed, efficiencies have gone steadily upward and the price per watt of power has declined even more rapidly. Even still, any appreciable solar systems still costs in the thousands of dollars, and one large enough to power an entire home will inevitably reach into the tens of thousands.

Suzi R. of Coarsegold, California, would not let herself be dissuaded by those numbers, however. California has consistently suffered some of the highest electricity rates in the country. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the state ranked ninth overall as of 2009. Through September 2011, EIA data shows that the state had moved up to seventh-highest in overall costs and eighth-highest in residential electricity rates.

Compared to the surrounding states, however, California’s energy prices look even more outrageous. While residents of the other states in the EIA’s Mountain and Pacific Contiguous regions averaged around 9.9 cents per kilowatt-hour through last September, Californians were paying 15.23 cents per kilowatt-hour.

That number is roughly 29 percent more than the national average and nearly 54 percent above the regional average. Californians’ electricity costs have risen rapidly as well. Just between 2010 and 2011 average residential electricity rates rose 3.3 percent.

For Suzi, all that added up quickly to mean $500 monthly electricity bills on average. At that level, thousands of dollars in investment seems much less difficult to justify. But paying the up-front costs of a residential solar installation can still prove difficult, with many families still struggling to recover from the recent financial crisis.

Both California and the federal government were able to ease the burden for Suzi, however. The U.S. offers a federal tax rebate worth 30 percent of the cost of a solar installation. On top of this, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency notes that California provides a variety of solar incentives from the California Solar Initiative tax rebate to net metering guarantees to a variety of smaller grant programs.

But even all of these solar incentives should not eliminate the up-front costs of a solar installation entirely. However, Suzi was lucky enough to make her switch after the state had already seen a major shift in solar financing. USA Today reports that California owes roughly one-third of its new solar capacity to the new concept of solar leasing. This system has solar installers adding solar systems for little or no up-front costs, instead charging a fixed monthly rate, essentially like a loan, until the system is paid off.

Between special financing and some sizable rebates, Suzi and California solar installer Real Goods Solar were able to put together a fairly massive ground-mounted solar installation. Composed of 44 panels, the system boasts a peak capacity of 10.34 kilowatts. The system is expected to produce around 18,842 kilowatt-hours each year, or enough electricity to run more nearly 2.8 average Californian homes, according to the EIA.

At that level of production, Suzi could expect annual savings of more than $2,800 if recent electricity rates hold. Of course, if trends continue as they have over the past decade, Suzi and most of the rest of the state can expect to see their electricity rates rising over the coming years and her savings will only grow larger. Added on top of this, the solar installation should reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 28,600 pounds each year, making it easy to understand why solar power has grown so popular in California over the past few years.

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Extra Electricity Bills Make Solar Look Even Better

Not every family has to worry about owning and maintaining two properties. It is usually more common in regions of the central and western U.S. where real estate prices are generally lower. Many people might think that anyone who can afford two homes would not need to worry about electricity bills, but particularly in those areas it can actually prove to be an even more daunting prospect.

While neither one will likely see continuous use, each of them must often use a minimum of power simply to keep heated throughout winter and some appliances will continue to function regardless of who is home. These costs make electricity a major concern for people with multiple properties. And it is this concern that makes these homeowners such a good test case for residential solar installations.

When Michael E. of Golden, Colorado, spoke with Real Goods Solar in 2009 about adding a ground-mounted solar installation for his home, he had no intention of serving as such an example. The family was certainly interested in reducing their electricity bills, and was growing increasingly worried that they would continue to see electricity rates from their utility continue to climb. In the 10 years prior, Colorado residents had seen their electricity rates jump more than 35 percent from 7.38 cents per kilowatt-hour to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The family proved to be correct in their expectation as well, with residential electricity rates in Colorado rising to 11.36 cents per kilowatt-hour through September of 2011, an increase of another 13.6 percent.

Michael decided to simply avoid the whole problem as best he could, choosing to invest in what amounts to a fairly sizable 40-panel residential solar installation. With a peak capacity of 7 kilowatts and an expected output of 10,130 kilowatt-hours, the system provides roughly 80 percent of the family’s electricity needs. In fact, according to the EIA, that amount of energy would have accounted for more than 88 percent of the electricity needs of the average American household in 2010 and nearly 1.2 households in Colorado.

That one system alone should help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 15,400 pounds each year and 385,000 pounds over its lifetime. But aside from the environmental benefits, 10,130 kilowatt-hours at last year’s average rate through September amounts to more than $1,150 each year in electricity savings.

Even if electricity rates stayed exactly the same that would mean savings of nearly $29,000 before even accounting for the solar incentives they will receive for producing solar renewable energy credits over time. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency reports that those credits amount to another 9 cents per kilowatt-hour each month, or another $911 each year and nearly $23,000 over the life of the system.

With those kinds of returns, Michael simply could not justify passing up on a similar opportunity on the family’s second home in Cripple Creek, to the southwest of Colorado Springs. Instead opting for a rooftop solar installation, Michael was able to expect similar returns and similar protection from rising electricity rates with a smaller solar system. At 5.17 kilowatts, the system should be able to produce another 7,800 kilowatt-hours per year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

That amounts to further savings of $890 per year in energy costs alone and another $700 in SRECs. Between all the solar incentives and lower electricity bills, Michael can expect to see an annual return on his investment of more than $3,600 each year. Assuming, of course, that electricity rates stay exactly the same.

Solar Industry Groups turn to States

The U.S. has seen a massive surge in interest in solar over the past few years. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the country saw record new solar installation in the third quarter of 2011 and added capacity has nearly doubled or even more than doubled each year for several years.

The growing number of investors in the sector as well as businesses choosing to adopt rooftop solar installations illustrates how far the cost of the technology has come, but several popular national solar incentives have played an important role as well. As part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package the government began to offer a federal tax rebate program worth 30 percent of the installed cost of a solar system.

Just as importantly, however, the 1603 grant program offered cash up front in place of these tax rebates, helping provide immediate funding for new solar installations. However, PV Magazine reports that despite a vigorous advocacy campaign from renewable energy groups like SEIA and more than 760 others, the 1603 program was allowed to expire at the end of 2011. A report sponsored by SEIA suggests that a one-year extension of the program could have created more than 37,000 jobs and added more than 2,000 megawatts of solar by 2016.

Nevertheless, the end of the program was largely expected and the solar industry and SEIA are already looking to the next battleground. In particular, the organization announced recently its plans to merge with fellow advocacy group Solar Alliance.

SEIA has focused to a large degree on national policy issues such as the 1603 program, taking a broader perspective. But with the failure to save that program and the growing success of state-level solar incentives in California, New Jersey, Colorado and other states, the group hopes to take a more active hand in directing these policies.

Current Solar Alliance president Carrie Cullen Hitt will join SEIA as the head of a new department for State Affairs, looking to more actively direct state and regional SEIA branches that have often been left to their own devices in the past.

“We have tremendous opportunities for opening markets for solar across all regions,” Hitt said in a statement. “With the Solar Alliance now a part of SEIA, we have the unified voice that is necessary on the policy front, both in Washington and in the states, to really take the U.S. solar industry to the next level.”

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German Solar Industry on the Decline

While a great deal of noise was made in the U.S. over loan guarantees to photovoltaic solar panel manufacturers like Solyndra, America is not the only solar industry to struggle through hard times and dire forecasts. Reuters reports that the solar industry in Germany, the world’s largest solar market, has faced a similarly rocky road with the legislature choosing to reduce some of the country’s crucial solar incentives and profits among solar manufacturers and solar installers declining.

To date, Germany’s solar market has dwarfed that of every other nation, adding 7.74 gigawatts of solar installations in 2010, according to industry analyst Solarbuzz. That represents nearly as much added capacity as the next five largest markets – Italy, the Czech Republic, Japan, the U.S. and France in that order – combined. According to, the country boasted 16.5 gigawatts of installed solar capacity by the end of the year and drew around 13 percent of its electricity from solar power at noon in early February of 2011. Just this November, the German Solar Industry Association reported that the country had installed its 1 millionth solar system.

However, this growth came at a cost. The country’s solar policy differed markedly from the U.S., where solar incentives have largely entailed subsidies for manufacturers and end-users through tax relief or renewable portfolio standards, which require a certain degree of investment in solar power. These policies tend to prove less expensive for the government, by shifting costs onto utilities, or at least more palatable because they involve lower taxes.

Germany instead made use of feed-in tariffs that pay a premium rate for electricity produced from renewable sources, and particularly solar power, a policy that has been slow to gain traction in the U.S., though has recently been implemented in Hawaii.

While these tariffs led to a surge in solar development, it also allowed for strong competition from solar manufacturers in Asia and elsewhere, which has forced down prices and made it difficult for German manufacturers to compete. Meanwhile, as costs grew, the government has scaled down the feed-in tariffs for solar electricity in recent years, pushing down demand and leading solar installers to cut jobs to keep down costs.

Now legislators have called for further cuts to this program, limiting access to these feed-in tariffs to only a portion of new solar installations. Bloomberg reports that Philipp Roseler, Germany’s economy minister and a member of the junior coalition member Free Democratic Party, has called on the government to limit these crucial incentives to only 1,000 megawatts of new capacity. That amounts to less than 13 percent of the added solar capacity in 2010.

But even now the solar industry has found support from powerful figures within the German government. German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen, himself a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has spoken out firmly against further drawbacks in the nation’s solar incentives.

“It makes no sense to again politically question laws that have just been adopted,” Roettgen insisted, according to Bloomberg. “Insecurity is poison for the energy transformation.”

As it stands, Germany plans to withdraw rapidly from its investment in nuclear power, worried about damages to a nuclear plant in Japan caused by March natural disasters. At present the country plans to replace its nuclear energy with gas- and coal-fired power plants, but PV Magazine notes that this could dramatically increase the country’s carbon emissions. Roettgen noted that if the country has any hope of achieving the proposed emissions reductions by the target date of 2050, solar power and other renewable energy sources would need to play a major role.

Though the success or failure of Germany’s solar industry will not dictate the future of solar in the U.S., a strong market in Germany would only further development of the technology and help bring prices steadily lower.

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How Much Can Manufacturing Technology Bring Down the Cost of Solar?

Solar power, from large-scale power plants to residential solar installations, has seen dramatic growth even as many declared the end of the solar era. And while the industry has come across stumbling blocks such as reticence from state governments, according to Environment & Energy Publishing, some new developments in the technology could help push solar electricity even further into the mainstream.

In late October, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory introduced an innovative new technology that ClimateProgress called “the coolest solar manufacturing technology you’ve never heard of.”

In crystalline silicon solar cells, which account for the vast majority of all solar panels in rooftop solar installations and many larger systems as well, silicon is heated until molten. SolarBuzz explains that most manufacturers must bring the material up to as much as 1,600 degrees Celsius, or more than 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. For technologies that require purer silicon, manufacturers must sometimes maintain this temperature for days as the crystal is formed, but the energy costs can prove dramatic regardless.

Particularly given the goal of the solar industry of reducing the need for fossil fuels, such energy inefficient process can prove counter-productive.

In an attempt to solve this method, MIT’s Technology Review reports that the NREL adopted an approach that is well-known in the manufacture of microchips and other electronics. Known as an optical cavity furnace, this technology uses intense light to heat up the silicon. Unlike earlier methods, the NREL’s furnace makes use of heavily insulated and highly reflective ceramic materials that are shaped exactingly to best focus the light where it is most needed.

This process dramatically improves the efficiency of these furnaces and allows for incredibly nuanced control of how solar cells are formed. The most immediate benefit, particularly where the cost of solar cells is concerned, is that the process reduces the energy needed by around 50 percent.

“With all solar cells, optics has a big advantage because solar cells are designed to absorb light very efficiently,” NREL principal engineer Bhushan Sopori said in a statement. “You can do a lot of things. You can heat it very fast and tailor its temperature profile so it’s almost perfectly uniform.”

In addition, the manufacturing of solar cells involves certain chemical reactions and other processes that can be improved through the fine control provided by the optical surface. Thus far the researchers, fairly early in their development of this technology, have been able to increase the efficiency of the solar cells about 0.5 percent. This already represents a substantial improvement given that the solar panels being sold commercially generally range from as low as 8 percent to, rarely, as high as 20 percent efficient.

However, the researchers believe that with further refining of the furnace they could actually increase cell efficiencies as much as 4 percentage point, roughly 25 percent increase over the same cells manufactured through traditional processes.

Other improvements could help to bring costs down through materials costs. PV Magazine reports that Japanese chemical company Kaneka and Belgium-based research group imec have created a solar cell that reached 21 percent efficiency, a relatively high mark above current industry standards, making use of copper contacts in place of the traditional printer silver. Aside from being more resilient and reliable in manufacturing purposes, copper is substantially less expensive than silver and less susceptible to price swings created by the investment market.

Reuters reports that the growing demand for silver in the solar sector, which nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010, has forced many companies to find ways to cut back on the precious metal’s use. Accounting for nearly one-tenth of solar manufacturers’ materials costs, a switch to copper could prove a huge benefit to the cost of solar installations.

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In Focus: Hawaiian Feed-In Tariff (FIT)

Hawaii already offers some of the greatest potential for residential solar installations in the entire U.S., but one of the state’s more recent programs could make solar panels even more appealing for homeowners. Kenneth Chang, living in the city of Manoa on the island of Oahu, serves as a perfect example of exactly how powerful solar can be in the island state, which is all the more impressive given that Kenneth is also the first homeowner to take advantage of the program.

Known simply as the Hawaii Feed-in Tariff, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, this 2009 program was implemented by the state’s largest utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company. Similar to policies implemented in several European and Asian countries, this program takes a different approach from most American solar incentives by simply paying a premium rate for electricity produced for solar installations and other renewable energy sources.

The feed-in tariff offers differing rates for differently-sized solar installations, but any system under 20 kilowatts, which should cover most residential rooftop solar installations, receives a premium rate of 21.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, any solar system up to 5 megawatts in size can receive at least 19.7 cents per kilowatt-hour at the least.

Of course, the reason that Hawaii has proven so popular for photovoltaic solar panels is that the state suffers from the highest electricity rates in the country, by a wide margin. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the state’s average electricity rate in 2009 was 21.21 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 18.06 cents per kilowatt-hour for second-place Connecticut. However, residential rates reached an average as high as 24.20 cents per kilowatt-hours, compared to 20.33 cents per kilowatt-hour in Connecticut.

Drawing most of its electricity from petroleum-fired plants, the EIA notes that prices in Hawaii spiked with the high oil costs as well, averaging 33.67 cents per kilowatt-hour through August of 2011.

Yet Kenneth has hardly been discouraged. He first added solar panels to his home in 2009 through Hawaii solar installer RevoluSun. Kenneth went with a 4.1-kilowatt solar system since he was relying on the federal tax rebate program that provides for 30 percent of the cost of a solar installation, up to the size needed to provide a home’s energy needs, and the state’s feed-in tariff had not yet been implemented.

“The installation was simple and efficient, and now I get only a monthly $15.99 bill for administrative fees from HECO, when before I was paying over $120 each month for energy,” Chang noted. “Then last year, [my RevoluSun representative] Abbie told me about the feed-in tariff. The idea that I could add to my system and get paid by HECO was too good to pass up.”

In August of 2011, Kenneth added another 16.7 kilowatts of solar capacity, bringing him to an even 88 solar panels. The added capacity was clearly far more than he needed, but in November he received his first check from HECO for the energy it had produced. On top of the more than $100 in monthly savings on his electricity bills, Kenneth received $1,344 from the feed-in tariff. At that rate, he expects to pay off the cost of his solar installation in no more than 10 months and from there every kilowatt-hour of energy he produces will be nothing but profit, amounting to nearly $320,000 over the next 20 years.

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Large Scale Solar Now Possible in North Africa

European developers hope that desert-based solar power could prove to be a critical asset in the fight against global climate change, according to The Guardian.

Most experts agree that global climate change represents a very real and growing threat, regardless of the ultimate cause. But a report released by the International Energy Agency in November suggested that the current trajectory of global emissions would make it difficult to limit warming to two degrees Celsius, the agency’s estimated safe limit of temperature change.

Solar power has already begun to play a role in reducing these emissions, with more than 18 gigawatts of solar installation added in 2010, according to industry analyst Solarbuzz. Commercial and residential solar installations continue to grow, but one group sees the solution in a larger, more concerted effort.

The Desertec Industrial Initiative is a project that looks to harness the massive amount of solar energy that strikes the desert and goes otherwise unused toward that end. Desertec is the result of decades of effort by German particle physicist Gerhard Knies, who decided to calculate the extent of this power in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. By Knies’ estimates, just six hours of sunlight across the world’s deserts represents enough energy to power the world for one year.

Desertec takes a slightly less ambitious challenge, hoping to provide more than 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 from solar and wind farms in the North African deserts alone.

The project has been slow to gain traction among investors, with many concerned about issues ranging from the security of the projects to the expense of transmitting the energy across the Mediterranean and then throughout Europe. This proves a particularly sensitive issue in part because German solar incentives could ultimately fund much of the project. The problem only becomes more complicated with some North African denizens suggesting that the project represents resource exploitation in the same vein as earlier centuries’ imperialism.

“When the idea for Desertec was first announced there was anger and irritation from the Arab League,” Paul van Son, chief executive officer of Desertec, explained to the Guardian. “They didn’t understand it at first, but we explained that it would benefit their members, too. We explained it would be a cooperative process and they became more relaxed. It’s a win-win for all, we stressed. The relationship is all positive now.”

At this point, both Egypt and Morocco have taken steps toward these type of major solar projects. Egypt has already built a 150-megawatt hybrid natural gas power plant that draws more than 20 megawatts of its power from solar thermal installations. Meanwhile, Desertec itself is set to begin the development of a 500 megawatts solar power plant near Ouarzazate in the south of the country.

Some substantial challenges remain even for the plant that has reached operation. Operators found that the extremely dusty conditions could lead to a rapid drop in efficiency without daily cleaning, which can prove expensive in the desert when it involves water.

Nevertheless, The Wall Street Journal reports that solar power could prove to be a powerful boon for African nations still struggling to provide adequate electricity to their citizens. However, if Desertec, which already has around $550 billion raised for its projects, proves successful it could have a major impact on the American solar industry as well. While most of the participants in the project are German, the example established by the project could provide further incentive to explore more of the desert “resources” around North America, from Death Valley to Northern Mexico.

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California Residents Saving Big Money with Solar

Power can prove to be expensive almost anywhere. Whether it comes from electric heating in Pennsylvania, all-day air conditioning in Arizona or just a family full of movie lovers in Nebraska, utility bills can easily pile up.

But that gets a lot easier in states like California that suffer from dramatically higher electricity prices than other parts of the country. Whereas that Nebraska family paid an average rate of 8.52 cent per kilowatt-hour in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, California residents were paying 14.74 cents per kilowatt-hour. That comes to nearly 75 percent more for electricity in the Golden State.

Bill Kammerer of Pleasant Hill, California, was well familiar with how high those costs can run. Even living in the more mild region of the state near the San Francisco Bay, Bill averaged electricity bills of around $460 per month. That left Bill paying more than four times the national average and nearly five-and-a-half times the state’s average electricity costs, according to the EIA.

Fed up with these high costs, Bill turned to solar power in the hopes of making his own power at a lower cost. He went to several California solar installers and ended up getting four separate quotes from major national names like REC Solar, SolarCity and Sungevity, but ultimately settled on Murrieta, California-based HelioPower.

With the option to speak with several different solar installers, Bill was able to make exactly the kind of system that he wanted for his house.

While many residential solar installations make use of a single central inverter, the mechanism that transforms the direct current power created by solar panels into the alternating current used by American devices, Bill was worried that the shade around his house would cause some of his solar panels to produce less power than the others. This can lead to lost energy with a central inverter, because it works based on the lowest common denominator. With HelioPower, Bill was able to install microinverters, which are attached to a single solar module.

In the end, Bill had 28 panels installed on his roof, largely out of sight and tilted at the precise angle to produce the most power possible given the location of the house. At 235 watts each, the rooftop solar installation boasted a capacity of as much as 5.94 kilowatts, capable of producing more than 7,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year and offsetting around 76 percent of Bill’s annual energy usage.

Thanks to California’s net metering laws, Bill can even sell any power he does not use back to the grid at the same rate. At that 14.74-cent-per-kilowatt-hour average, this amounts to more than $1,000 in annual savings without taking into account any of the state or federal solar incentives for which he is eligible.

The popular federal tax credit will cover 30 percent of the cost of a residential solar installation, while the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency notes that the California Solar Initiative offered $2.50 per watt of installed capacity, or $14,850 in Bill’s case, before strong interest in the program exhausted those funds. All told, Bill estimates he will save around $3,000 per year.

Meanwhile, with all these savings piling up, Bill took advantage of the new residential solar leasing financing scheme through SunRun. This system allowed him to add the installation at no cost, instead choosing to pay a monthly fee to SunRun, making the initial investment no issue at all. Solar leasing is already responsible for more than one-third of all residential solar installation in California, but more and more success stories like Bill’s make it likely to continue its dramatic growth.

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India Has Solar Equation Right

The U.S. solar market has seen a dramatic rise in recent years, quickly making up lost ground on world leaders like Germany and Italy. But other regions of the globe have begun to find success with solar power as well. Bloomberg reports that the India saw a dramatic drop in prices at its latest solar auction, offering promise that solar power could compete with traditional fossil fuels far faster than anticipated.

Solar incentives in the U.S. revolve largely around tax incentives, reducing the cost of commercial and residential solar installations, and loan guarantees for companies that ideally will never be paid. Country’s such as Europe, Italy and now China instead offer feed-in tariffs that pay a certain price per kilowatt-hour of energy produced.

India has taken a very different approach, setting up auction wherein it offers to purchase solar power at a specified rate for 25 years. Companies will then make a bid based on how cheaply it believes it can produce the necessary amount of power and a number of power plants are contracted by the companies that offer the lowest price. The latest auction allowed for as many as 28 solar installations of as much as 20 megawatts each.

The Indian government set the introductory price at 15,390 rupees, or slightly more than $300, per megawatt-hour of electricity. That amounts nearly 44 percent above the average global price for solar power. By the time the auctions had resolved, however, the average bid of the 28 successful project had fallen as low as 8,780 rupees, or around $171, per megawatt-hour of energy. That amounts to nearly 18 percent below the global average.

The top bid from Solairedirect SA of France reached as low as 7,490 rupees, or $147, per megawatt-hour, beating the global average by 30 percent. Indeed, that brings the price to less than double the global cost of coal, which sounds unimpressive before realizing that this accounts for the fact that most coal plants have already been constructed and have paid off some or all of the cost of their construction.

V. Saibaba, the chief executive officer of Lanco Solar, suggested to Reuters that the current trends in the solar industry in India could drop the cost as much as 40 percent by 2015.

While much of this might seem foreign or arcane, the stunning success of such a young solar market at a seemingly low cost could help promote cheap solar power around the globe, setting a model for other regions to follow.

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REPORT: U.S Solar Market Can Double in Next Year

After months of speculation about the end of the solar era and the inevitable decline of the nation’s solar manufacturers and installers, the first substantive report with projections of the U.S. solar market has been released.

Solarbuzz, one of the most prominent solar industry research groups, released its North American PV Markets Quarterly report for the fourth quarter at the end of November.

Uncertainty about the solar market began in part with the turbulence in the economy that followed from a series of natural disasters and the debt crises in both the U.S. and Europe, then continuing with the end of key solar incentives in Europe and finally the collapse of several prominent U.S. solar manufacturers, including government-supported Solyndra.

Yet, despite these setbacks, the solar market grew substantially through the first three quarters. Many critics, however, argued that the impact would begin to be felt in the fourth quarter, once these incident had time to take effect.

According to Solarbuzz, if they had any negative impact it was lost in the tremendous growth of the solar industry. With 811 megawatts of new solar installations projected for the fourth quarter, the North American solar market should grow 32 percent from the third quarter of 2011. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. as a whole added slightly more than 878 megawatts of solar installations in 2010, only 67 megawatts more than the region will add this quarter.

The year-over-year growth is even more remarkable, with the market increasing 101 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010. If these numbers prove correct, the country would add 1.9 gigawatts over the course of the year, once again doubling the region’s investment in the solar sector.

“PV is now positioned to take significant market share from other energy sources as it approaches grid parity in some regions. Downstream companies are facing enormous challenges to adapt to rapidly changing channel structure and business models in order to successfully participate in that opportunity,” Craig Stevens, president of NPD Solarbuzz, said in a statement.

While residential solar installations remain a substantial portion of the market, more and more businesses are realizing the potential for large-scale rooftop solar installations as well, with 204 megawatts added in the third quarter and a staggering 301 megawatts projected for the last three months of the year.

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In Focus: The Sunshot Initiative

Only a few decades ago, solar power was held up as an example of the problems inherent in government subsidies. Politicians would look at attempts to adopt early versions of the technology, which inevitably proved economically unfeasible once government supports were removed, and assumed solar power was nothing more than wishful thinking.

The explosion in solar development in the time since then, particularly within the last decade, has illustrated exactly how short-sighted those assumptions were. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a report on the development of solar technologies in 2010 that illustrated the dramatic drop in the cost per watt of solar modules even without many of the earlier government investments. Between 1980 and 2008, the real cost of solar installations dropped from more than $22 per watt to beneath $4 per watt.

Nonetheless, at least in some areas solar power remains relatively expensive when compared to some traditional fuels like coal and, more commonly, natural gas. In other areas, similar costs have led people to choose more familiar technologies or to shy away from solar because of challenges like intermittency.

Hoping to tackle the nation’s growing energy issues and ongoing environmental struggles, the Department of Energy introduced a program designed to overcome these challenges known as the Sunshot Initiative. As of November 2011, Solarbuzz reports the average cost of solar in the U.S. is still $2.49 per watt, down more than 4 percent just from October. The Sunshot Initiative hopes bring the cost of solar installations down below $1 per watt, which officials hope could bring the cost to produce solar electricity down to as little as 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, easily competitive with other sources of energy. At that price, the DoE hopes that solar could account for as much as 18 percent of the country’s electricity by only 2030.

When President Barack Obama proposed the Sunshot Initiative along with many the other programs designed to stimulate economic activity in the wake of the recent recession, part of his efforts to encourage investment in research and development. But Science magazine reported in February that the initiative seemed unlikely to survive the cuts that Congressional Republicans insisted upon before approving the latest budget.

Those dim prospects only got dimmer with the high-profile collapse of several major solar companies including, in particular, Fremont, California-based Solyndra. The potential loss of $535 million in loan guarantees to the company quickly soured many people’s attitudes toward solar, causing many to fear the country would end its investment in new technologies.

But the Obama administration pushed forward with the program, announcing at the start of September that it had issued more than $145 million in funding and loan guarantees to potentially transformative technologies in the solar sector.

Solar cell efficiency has steadily progressed from only a few percent to above 20 percent in some high-end solar cells over the past few decades, and Sunshot spent more than $35 million on such research, but many companies and agencies already invest heavily in this field. With most of its funding, Sunshot took a dramatically different approach, offering comparatively small amounts of money to projects addressing often overlooked problems that, if successful, could revolutionize the industry. Even the investments in improved solar cell efficiency went to technologies that might not otherwise have found funding.

The greatest part of the funding – $42 million – went not to developing solar technologies, but research into reducing balance of system costs, all the parts of a solar installation other than the panels and cells themselves. These parts account for more than 40 percent of the cost of a solar system. Many millions more went to systems designed to ease the integration of solar systems into the grid, such as helping account for bi-direction flow of power, and nearly $6 million was used to create systems to help move new technologies from the laboratory to the market.

With this low-risk, high-reward model, the Sunshot Initiative can hope that only a few of its investments ever make returns and still feel confident that it could revolutionize solar power and the U.S. energy industry.

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In Focus: Floating Solar Platforms

Commercial and residential solar installations represent some of the greatest potential for solar power, but a variety of other techniques have emerged that similarly make use of its unique advantages. One of the more interesting prospects for solar power actually is not any kind of rooftop solar installation or concentrating mirror, but a floating platform.

One of the great difficulties of solar power, among many other kinds of renewable power, is that of intermittency in which solar power systems do not create a consistent and predictable amount of electricity. Solar and wind, the two most prominent renewable sources, both have difficulty overcoming this issue at times.

One idea to help limit the impact of intermittency, while simultaneously reducing the amount of land dedicated to power generation, is to attach solar panels and potentially wind turbines to floating platforms with so -called wave power generators. These generators make use of the rhythmic motion of the waves, produced by the wind out at sea, transforming it into power through a variety of different mechanisms ranging from turbines to pumps.

Using this relatively consistent source of renewable electricity, some hope that these platforms could produce a comparatively stable amount of power, with the variations between the three different power sources resulting in a steady net output.

The New York Times reports that some companies have already begun to place solar installations on bodies of water, though the Times notes that so far this has largely been limited to fresh water bodies like the California aqueduct. Power Engineering reports that a growing number of countries and companies have begun to tackle the more difficult challenge of locating solar power systems on the ocean, surrounded by constant salt sprays and the constant rocking of the waves. Science Daily reports that one Israeli company has even found a means of utilizing the ocean as a heat sink for its solar panels, helping increase the efficiency of its crystalline-silicon solar cells, which often face the challenge of maximizing solar energy while preventing the system from overheating.

Attempts at combining the technologies have emerged as ready products, however. CleanTechnica reports that one London-based engineer has designed a net-like system with small, low-cost pods incorporating both solar panels and a displacement-based wave power generator. Phil Pauley, the system’s designer, notes that the solar systems can even convert some sunlight reflected back from the water. Though these systems might matter more to utilities than residential consumers, the potential for the expanded of solar power should improve prospects for the industry as a whole. Solar Ener

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