Interest in renewables is exploding

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117087847014085.jpg’, ‘Photo by Renewable Energy Access’, ‘Google’s 1.6 megawatt PV installation at their headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.—the largest installation in the U.S. at the time and one of the largest in the world.‘);

For those of us who have spent years stimulating interest in renewable energy, the sudden, dramatic increase in interest can only be described as a boom. While we do not believe the boom will turn into a bust, the rush to renewables will hit some bumps in the road.

One of the biggest hurdles the renewable energy industry has faced is the initial high costs of the systems. People have been unable or reluctant to spend between $10,000 and $40,000 before government subsidies to have a solar hot water or solar electric system or small wind generator installed on their property. (In many cases, rebates and subsidies can cut prices in half.) Bankers have been reluctant to include the cost of a system on a home mortgage.

Some real estate interests advised people to remove a solar hot water or electrical system from the roof of their home so the property would be easier to sell. They thought potential buyers may not like their appearance or fear potential service needs.

All of that is rapidly changing as firms are now offering complete packages to homeowners and small businesses. Some firms are sponsoring events to introduce potential customers to their package. The events usually include a rationale for having such a system, explanations of how they work, videos showing examples of installations and financing plans. At the end of the session, potential customers will be asked to fill out a form to initiate investment. Systems will be available either for customer purchase or rental. Rates will be set at prices competitive with utility power.

Similar financing arrangements will be available to stores, factories, hotels and any other businesses with space for a renewable energy system. The industry has gained considerable experience installing large-scale systems on public buildings and warehouse roofs, including Walgreens and Wal-mart stores. Wal-mart recently asked several firms to bid on rooftop installations on stores in five states with favorable sun regimes, state rebates and high electrical prices. Even a trend-setting installation such as that designed to power the offices of Google is likely to be surpassed in size in the near future.

This February has been targeted as launch time for renewable energy program announcements by private firms. These firms are trying to line up installers for what is expected to be a large market.

When the announcements start rolling out, potential customers will need to calculate costs of the systems and understand legal commitments of the system supplier, installer and property owner. Since the systems are grid connected, they will need both utility approval and Illinois State approval if grants or rebates are involved. Many of the new programs will provide assistance getting all approvals needed to ensure success of the system.

The big unknown is the future cost of energy and its effect on the economics of a renewable system. Considering the current and projected energy situation, the dominant view is that high energy prices are here to stay. Although high prices will hurt in the short run, over the long run they can help usher in a new era of clean, dependable, stable energy prices. Once a renewable energy system is in place, the cost of the sun’s energy does not vary.

While it might take extra effort and time to determine which renewable energy system and financial package best fit your needs, it will be time well spent. The rewards of those decisions will continue to accumulate over the years.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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