Solar power goes big time

Walgreen Company recently announced 96 stores and two distribution centers in California and 16 stores in New Jersey will be equipped with rooftop solar electric systems. Some of the systems will be operational this year. When all the units are installed, they are expected to generate 13.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The amount of energy generated is equivalent to 22 million gallons of gasoline; it will save carbon dioxide equivalent to what is stored in 5 million tree seedlings.

The solar roof tiles are expected to generate from 20 to 50 percent of the electrical needs of the buildings. They will be installed by Imaginit, a Denver-based solar energy consulting firm. Imaginit will devote 4 percent of the project profits to installing solar electric systems on health clinics in developing countries.

Wal-Mart recently opened a new energy-efficient store near Dallas that features solar electricity, wind power, and a bio-fuel boiler. Coca-Cola and Frito Lay are installing new membrane roofs with integrated solar electric systems. Other big box stores and warehouses are also embracing solar installations.

Last week, California regulators approved the California Solar Initiative. Over the next 11 years, $3.2 billion will be allocated to the installation of approximately 3,000 MW of solar electricity. The added capacity is roughly equivalent to three existing Byron nuclear units. California is already home to 80 percent of the U.S. solar market, but this sizable expansion is expected to impact the worldwide market for solar electricity.

Roughly $2.8 billion in funds will be targeted for solar electric installations on existing residential, public, industrial, business and agricultural buildings. Another $400 million will be directed toward new home construction. Rebates will be $2.80 per installed watt for the first year. They will decline 10 percent per year over the life of the program. The program will be funded by a small surcharge on monthly electric bills. The new federal tax credit for solar energy can also be used to lower system costs in California and throughout the country.

Citizen support was crucial to the successful passage of the California rebate program. During the months preceding the bill’s passage, 50,000 people sent letters of support to members of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Long-term government commitments in Japan and Germany enabled those countries to overtake the United States as the world leader in solar module manufacturing. Mark Burger of Spire Corporation in Chicago has pointed out the damage that small-scale, erratic government support has done to the solar industry in Illinois and the rest of the U.S.

California’s 11-year commitment will stimulate an expansion in solar electric manufacturing facilities. It provides the incentives and stability firms seek before expanding capacity. The new factories will be larger and incorporate the latest improvements in efficiency of manufacturing and solar modules. The combination of factors should lead to dramatic price declines in a few years.

It is time to celebrate the good news.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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