A group of students at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore were assigned to estimate the investment needed for solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2100.

They concluded it would require an investment of $36 trillion, absorb land area in the Southwest as large as New England, and sell for 10 cents per KWh-more than twice current average wholesale cost. So why are we bothering with this? Well, maybe there is something valuable here you can learn.

Solar PV is the technology of creating electric power from sunlight. It started with the American space program in the 1950s and has grown to become a major potential alternative source of energy. At the beginning, it was primarily for nongrid purposes, using small silicon cells in stand-alone situations. But by the end of 2002, grid-connected capacity had reached 74 percent of global solar PV generation. In common with many other new technologies, the industry started with many small companies. These have gradually been whittled down and, in the last 10 years, there has been much consolidation among producers, with several international conglomerates among them. But new patents are spawning additional startups as well.

Solar PV obviously is a clean form of energy-once it is installed, there are no fuel costs and, with no moving parts, it is almost maintenance-free. Like wind power, it is ideal in remote locations where grids cannot reach. PV cells can be mounted on the building roof or integrated into the façade. PV can be used to provide portions of the building's electrical load during daylight hours, shaving peak demand. In remote locations, PVs can be combined with storage devices to provide electricity off-grid and are suitable for grid-connected generation. Modern solar PV technology includes single- and poly-cell silicon crystal, thin film and optical concentrators, with subclassifications.

Many people must think it is worth the effort because there are 930 manufacturers of solar PV products and systems worldwide, and demand is growing at a 37 percent annual rate. One of the largest, BP Solar, is set to move forward at strengthening its position in the U.S. solar electric market.

These plans include doubling production capacity at its Frederick, Md., plant and partnering with The Home Depot to market BP Solar home systems. The program is now offered in 40 stores in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino, Calif., with plans to expand to additional stores in 2005 throughout U.S. markets. BP Solar makes the SX-50M, which the company says is the most economical, high-efficiency poly crystal silicon solar panel available today. The module's projected lifespan is in excess of 25 years.

Solar PV systems are being installed on four IBEW training centers in New York state in a program designed to raise solar awareness and provide training to IBEW membership. Each installation is composed of a 30 kW solar power system made up of Sharp solar PV roofing shingle modules. The program is being funded through grants awarded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to four IBEW locals in affiliation with NECA. New York Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue announced that NYSERDA provided $740,000 to the organizations' Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees to support the statewide effort.

“It's a logical way to help the solar-power industry grow,” said Joseph Maraia, president of the New York State Association of Electrical Workers. “IBEW electricians and NECA contractors are well positioned to bring this new generating technology to the mainstream.”

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (www.nabcep.org) administers independent solar PV installer certification.

In California, where electricity costs and consumer tempers went ballistic in 2001, state energy officials turned to distributed generation-solar power, fuel cells and small gas-powered generators-to get more power quickly on the grid without having to wait for new plants to be built. WorldWater & Power Corp. unveiled its proprietary and patented AquaMax system, which drives a 200-horsepower irrigation-pumping system at the Seley Ranches facility.

The 267 kW system is grid-connected and can operate independently from the solar PV array, from the electrical grid or from both sources if necessary. This also allows the system to “net meter”-that is, return excess solar electricity to the utility for credit if it is not required in the field.

But cost is still the problem. Sufficient solar energy needed to power a home will cost $10,000, even after California state subsidies, and a fuel cell or small gas-fired generator or microturbine can cost $30,000. Because natural gas prices are now so high, only solar produces electricity comparable in price to what is being charged-12 cents per kilowatt/hour-by PG&E.

“For people to want to make these financial leaps, people have to believe that energy is going to be a looming problem long term, and have concerns for environmental issues as well,” said Tibor Fischl of Renewable Energy Resources, an Occidental alternative energy company.

Of all the renewable distributed-energy sources, solar systems using photovoltaic panels are the most common today, partly because the California Energy Commission set aside $100 million through 2005 to subsidize solar and other renewable-energy technologies. For solar, the state pays $3 per kilowatt, or about half of the cost of the system, whichever is less. With the subsidies and tax credits, solar PV systems that produce electricity for 12 cents per kilowatt/hour pay for themselves in 12 years.

Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, Calif., installed a 32-kilowatt solar system, powerful enough to serve the administration complex, which after rebates ended up costing about $150,000. “It has been operating phenomenally, meeting all projections in terms of the energy produced,” said Susanne Zechiel, Fetzer's senior operations officer.

GE Energy's solar electric power systems are currently being installed in Premier Homes “Zero Energy Homes” (ZEH) community, Premier Gardens, located in Sacramento, Calif. Zero Energy Homes, as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy, are expected to gain up to 60 percent reduction on their energy costs by solar PV design savings. GE Energy also provided experienced personnel for installation training for Premier Homes' roofers and electricians. Installation began in the third quarter of 2004 and should be completed by the second quarter of 2005. Premier Gardens' total solar power output is expected to be about 300 MW/hours annually to help power 95 single-family homes.

“Whenever you can combine beautiful architecture with energy-efficient homes, it is a win-win situation for the consumer and the environment,” said John Stewart, principal of Premier Homes. “We are finally coming into the realm where the PV investment makes sense,” said John Schaeffer, president of Real Goods Trading Corp. in Hopland, Calif., a marketer of alternative energy products. “For years we were saying that it is just around the corner, but now it is here.”

For the best way to go for solar PV potential in your state, review the regularly updated information from the National Center for Photovoltaics of the National Renewable Energy Lab at www.nrel.gov/ncpv/ and consider membership in the Solar Energy Industries Association, www.seia.org. EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.