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Solar gets overshadowed in energy debate

Photo by Ben Brewer

State College Friends School is one of the few locations in the Centre Region that uses photovoltaic cells. The solar panels, installed in 2006, only save the school an estimated $250 per year.

Solar gets overshadowed in energy debate

by Jenn Kight


Despite gas prices projected to hit $4 per gallon by summer and rising electricity rates, homeowners and businesses alike aren’t using a low-maintenance and sustainable technology that has been around since the 1890s: solar.

“This has been around since the turn of the 20th century,” explained Andy Lau, an associate professor of engineering design at Penn State. “Back in the early 1900s, before there was even an electricity grid, there were solar water heaters all over the south and west, especially in southern California and Florida. Some of those systems are still working.”

There are three ways to harvest solar energy: through the use of passive solar energy, a solar electric system, known as a photovoltaic system, or a solar thermal system.

Passive solar refers to building methods that use the structure to capture the sun’s heat and then store or distribute it, thus reducing the need for conventional heating, cooling or lighting, according to the Pennsylvania Department for Environmental Protection. The department cites south-facing windows, dark-tile floors, stone fireplaces, brick interior walls and super-insulation as examples of passive solar design.

The term “photovoltaic” describes the conversion of light into electricity at the atomic level. The Pennsylvania Solar Web site explains that photovoltaic technology converts sunlight into electricity, or voltage. The PV cells are composed of semi-conducting materials. Each cell is approximately four inches square and produces about one watt of power. By grouping the cells together, enough power can be generated to provide lighting for a small light bulb.

Two local examples are the 22 solar electric panels on the roof of the State College Friends School, 1900 University Dr., and the tracker array at Penn State’s Center for Sustainability.

Solar thermal systems are fairly simple, explained Lau.

Solar thermal is basically some sort of metal painted black,” he said. “The special coating makes it perform more efficiently. Either way, it’s just a specially coated metal sheet with tubing.”

Solar electricity, which is generated by a photovoltaic panel on a roof, can be used many different ways, but it is relatively expensive, due to the semi-conducting materials, Lau said. There are federal and state subsidies for photovoltaic systems even though it’s not yet cost-effective to buy the system itself.

Lau told Voices that his solar thermal system was salvaged in Philadelphia, from an area where about 80 panels were going to be thrown away. Lau and Robert Forsberg, who founded the Julian Woods Community, are working to repair the panels. Lau’s system should be ready for installation in the next couple of months, he said.

Lau’s household spends about $300 on hot water each year, using a regular water heater, he said. His solar thermal system will work to heat the water and will probably provide about half of his heated water, saving his family $150 to $200 each year.

Because he salvaged the panels, Lau expects his system to pay for itself within seven years, but a typical commercial installation of one of these systems costs about $3,000 to $5,000, Lau said. Such a system will pay itself off in about 20 years, depending on usage. Payback sound too far off?

Electricity rates are going up, so people are extra concerned about doing something now, because we really don’t know how much [the electricity will go up]. The average estimate I’ve seen is 30 percent,” he said.

The State College Friends School received a $30,000 grant from West Penn Power to pay for about half of its solar electric system, Lau said.

The 3.6-kilowatt system saves the school about $250 a year, covering the cost of powering the lights in the community room and the lights in the kitchen, according to Dan Hendey, the business and facilities manager at the school. Hendey said the school uses a lot more energy than it produces through the panels, but that the panels, located on the school’s roof facing University Drive, have a visibility benefit to them. “It makes a statement for the school,” said Hendey.

Brittany Harris, president of Eco-Action, a Penn State student group, was unimpressed with the numbers.

I would think they would save more than that,” she said, adding that a better system would be a passive tracking system, one in which the panels move with the sun throughout the day.

Lau said that it can be discouraging to some people to hear the actual cost savings from a solar system.

People want an answer. You hear a lot of hubbub about solar systems, so the initial excitement diminishes when the [cost savings] are revealed.” The Friends School system was state-of-the-art when it was installed in 2006.

At the Earth Day celebration on the Penn State campus in April, the Center for Sustainability used six 20-year-old solar panels to power a modest sound system. Even though it was a gray, rainy day, the system generated excess energy.

Anthony Dente, former student president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, said it’s a myth that areas like “Soggy Valley, Pa.” aren’t good for solar energy use.

Germany is worse off than Pennsylvania in terms of location for optimal sunlight, and they’re leading the way,” Dente said.

Dente said it’s not the weather but other, more predictable factors that decide who invests in what research at Penn State.

The fact that the university isn’t jumping into the solar industry right now probably can be related to how our government isn’t jumping into it either,” he said. “Penn State just received a grant from Exxon to research clean coal. It’s very apparent in the way we address engineering education at this school.”

In March, Gov. Ed Rendell broke ground on a $20 million solar energy plant in Bucks County, Pa. The Exelon-EPURON Solar Center boasts 16,500 solar panels on 16 acres of land and is expected to meet the energy needs of 400 homes when completed later this year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. A study of the governor’s budget shows solar is still a relatively small percentage of his overall energy independence plan, which includes processing waste coal. Chevron donated $17.5 million to Penn State last year for so-called “clean coal” research.



Where to save?

“The main message is to invest in panels, not to save a lot of money,” said David Riley, executive director of the sustainability center. “I could walk through that building, finding things that need to be made more efficient. Most people don’t put enough emphasis on making their energy use more efficient.”

Riley said he would like to have seen some of the West Penn Power grant go to correcting structural inefficiencies, to use the energy the school is already consuming more efficiently.

Riley said we need to build homes and buildings that don’t waste electricity.

If you do that, you don’t need a big solar system,” he said.

Harris said there are two ways to cut energy waste: at the user end and the source end. There are preventative measures people can take even in apartments, she said, such as using power strips, unplugging appliances when they are not in use and turning down the heat during the colder months.

Homeowners can also use solar energy without ever putting panels on a roof. Passive solar, which means taking the best advantage of the solar available, could mean adding more windows to the south side of an existing house, Lau said.

“If you're building a new house, this means getting the house oriented to the south side,” he said, warning that it is possible to have too many windows, overheating the home. Lau said the solution would be to get some thermal mass in the house to help soak up the extra heat, such as a concrete slab floor on the south side of the house.

One way for everyone to support solar technology is to buy energy credits. Harris said that during her time in California, she saw cards for energy credits that customers could purchase at checkout lines in grocery stores. Pennsylvania has yet to implement such a program, but people can buy wind credits, for example, as Lau does. Every month, a wind power company deducts a set amount from his credit card to go towards supporting the wind energy industry.

This year, the Friends School will begin to earn energy credits for being a producer of clean energy. Companies can buy the school’s credits to offset their own dependence on coal, for example. Additionally, the school buys wind energy credits from Community Energy. About 20 percent of the school’s energy comes from wind power, said Hendey.

Solar technologies are like any new systems, said Riley. It takes awhile for people to fully comprehend them. Solar energy requires people to understand that we’re building inefficient buildings, so we need to fix that first, he said.

At a recent lecture at Penn State titled “Here Comes the Sun: The Business Case for Solar Energy,” Riley said solar technology has a “Prius effect” on people. As people become more conscious of their energy consumption, they become more motivated to use less.


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