Solar Energy: A Current Review

During my honeymoon, my wife and I stayed in an eco-lodge in New Zealand. I was amazed at their story — not only was the lodge powered by solar energy, it was built with solar energy! The owners partially powered the tools and generator used to build the house with solar energy when possible.

Eight 80-watt solar panels and eight 24-volt deep cycle batteries provide the power for the house and the lodge. An inverter draws the power from the batteries into the proper 230 volts for appliances, such as our lights, washing machine, and refrigerators. Three hours of full sunlight will provide enough electricity for daily use.

So I began to wonder — has solar power finally arrived? In the case of the eco-lodge in New Zealand, it also took energy-sipping appliances, strategically placed lighting and windows, and a mild environment to make it happen there. But where does solar stand in the US?

Currently, electricity costs about $.08/kilowatt hour in most states. To put that in perspective, a 100-watt incandescent lightbulb would cost about $.60 to run 24/7 for an entire month. That’s pretty darn cheap, and hard to compete against!

In 1970, the cost of solar finally decreased from $100 to $20 per watt. Today, solar is $.30 KWH — still a full 3x more expensive than typical utility costs. Imagine your monthly electric bill tripling! That’s the current state of affairs for a solar powered grid.

So an utility approach may not be the solution — what can an individual do off the grid? Currently, a 4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system costs about $34,000 without government rebates or tax breaks. As a result, solar power accounts for well under 1% of U.S. electricity generation.

But how bright does the future of solar energy look? Worldwide photovoltaic installations increased by 5,948 MW in 2008, up from 2,826 MW installed during the previous year. To put this in perspective, in 1985 annual solar installation demand was only 21 MW! We’ve come a long way, baby.

The US grew to 357 megawatts in 2008. Spain is the largest market, followed by Germany.

But strong at the heels of these global players is China, which wants renewable energy to account for 15 percent of the country’s overall use. China recently announced to boost solar output 13 fold by 2011 to 2,000 megawatts.

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