by Dave Gardner
In view of the reality that the solar energy absorbed by the Earth in one hour is greater than all of the energy now used globally in one year, it becomes clear that renewable energy systems are here to stay.
The most widespread renewable system now in use involves silicon panels which convert sunlight into electricity through a law of nature called the photoelectric effect. Solar panels were actually invented in the 1880s, and have steadily increased in efficiency to a point where 20 percent of the solar energy striking them is converted into electricity.
Mike Pitcavage, CEO of Endless Energy, has installed at least 20,000 solar panels in a wide variety of applications. These units are truly rugged and can each produce 290 to 350 watts of energy while averaging 4.18 hours a day of production at NEPA’s distance from the equator.
“This allows a system to generate power during the day and then dump it back into the transmission grid to be withdrawn at night,” said Pitcavage.
A typical residential system, rated at 10 kilowatts of power output, therefore requires 40 to 44 panels for energy independence with a total one-time cost of about $35,000. Return on investment (ROI) is a big issue, but with a 25-year system warranty the ROI can generally be achieved in about a decade.
“Federal tax credits are also available for installation, proving that both sides of the aisle in Washington seem to appreciate the value of solar energy,” said Pitcavage. “Global markets dictate the manufacturing of the cells themselves, but economic activity from installation and service is robust.”
Yet, a temporary blow was delivered to the use of solar energy by the Trump administration with their application of graduated tariffs on imported solar cells. This taxation, which will last for four years, starts with a 30 percent tariff on each cell but then decreases in the following years until ceasing.
“The federal tariff will actually be a job killer, because the service and technology sectors are the real job producers with solar,” said Pitcavage. “When you inhibit installation, it kills the other jobs solar energy creates.”
Pitcavage is among the solar professionals now watching how Pennsylvania’s State Solar Renewable Energy Credit system (SREC) evolves. Harrisburg had mandated that by 2020 one-half of all electricity in the state must be from solar, and SREC has created a system of credits that can assist installation ROI.
“India, China, Europe and Australia are well ahead of us in solar development,” said Pitcavage. “On-shore research is still taking place, but everyone believes that ground-breaking advances in solar cells, such as big gains in efficiency from a non-silicon-based panel, will come from overseas.”
The other visible source of renewable power within NEPA involves wind power. These systems, which are very common in Europe, capture air flow through wind turbines to mechanically power electric generators, often on a very large scale and at isolated locations.
Wind power does have one problem. Sometimes, when the electricity is needed most such as the hottest days of summer, the wind doesn’t show up for work.
However, when rated from the standpoint of total electrical output, wind power is very consistent from year to year. A typical turbine generates usable amounts of power 80 percent to 90 percent of the time.
Avangrid Renewables has constructed at least 60 domestic wind locations, utilizing 3,000 turbines to produce vast amounts of electrical power. Regionally, the company operates the Locust Ridge site in Schuylkill County.
Paul Copleman, communications manager with Avangrid, explained that turbine construction requires a minimal 25-year investment. Each of the giant turbines costs $1 million to $2 million per megawatt of electricity produced, creating a total price tag of $2 million to $4 million for turbine plus the needed hardware.
In a surprise, Copleman confirmed that oil-rich Texas has actually become the nation’s top producer of electricity from wind. Iowa and California also have become big states for wind exploitation.
“Manufacturing and the vast supply chain for all of this hardware are the real big economic sectors in this business,” said Copleman. “Europe is way ahead with equipment pricing, jobs, and manufacturing processes, but there is great opportunity here to be exploited.”
As turbine technology improves and operators of wind facilities eye the vast wind energy available at costal locations, Avangrid is among the companies pursuing substantial site investment. Company president and CEO Laura Beane explained that her company is in a positive long-term position with a North Carolina-Virginia offshore lease, plus a more immediate offshore opportunity in Massachusetts.
According to Beane, this is helping to move the American offshore wind industry forward. She also claimed that Avangrid is now the only American company well positioned at this moment to grow the domestic offshore sector.
“There’s quite a competition underway along the eastern seaboard states to show leadership in the next decade by developing offshore wind and we want to help them all make this a cornerstone economic development tool for their region,” said Beane. “With the changing technology and lessons learned in European offshore development, we think we offer each of those states a much shorter bridge to future offshore economic success.”