Environment Illinois: Illinois filled with solar potential

By Bruce Ratain
Field Associate, Environment Illinois

Tom Benson had a big problem. It was the winter of 2001, and as owner of a mega-laundromat in Berwyn, Ill., the gas crisis was bearing down particularly hard. Benson knew it was time for a change. Yet, rather than cutting staff or closing shop, Benson installed a solar water heater on his roof. Now, his laundromat saves energy equivalent to planting 56 acres of trees each year, and has even become a tourist attraction, with visitors stopping to see his revolutionary laundromat on their way to more mainstream Chicago attractions like Millennium Park.

From Laundromats in Berwyn to farms on the Mississippi, Illinois is filled with solar potential. Both our farming and manufacturing base situate us well to reap the benefits of solar power.

Solar photovoltaic cells (PV) used on rural farms save the costs of running power lines from cities to each farm and prevents transmission losses. Solar energy can be used to dry crops, heat greenhouses and barns, and power water pumps—oftentimes by measures as simple as capturing and concentrating the sun’s natural heat. Once installed, this solar power requires little, if any, maintenance, and can produce clean, renewable energy for decades.

Solar energy can power our cities through distributed solar panels, concentrated solar power plants, solar water heaters, and even building design. A recent Environment Illinois report found 40 percent of residential roofs are ready for on-site PV solar-power generation. Rapid technological innovation is making solar PV more efficient. Dow Chemicals, for example, is now bringing to market solar-generating shingles that are extremely easy to install and are anticipated to bring in $5 billion in revenue by 2015.

Distributed solar power has great benefits, but solar-generating capacity can also be concentrated into actual power plants, either by covering a single large area with solar panels, or by arranging mirrors to focus the sun’s energy into a central collector. Our report found that building concentrated solar power plants at prime locations in the southwest United States alone could generate 11,000 gigawatts of power—six times more than America’s current energy demand.

Heating water is a particularly efficient use of solar energy. On average, an investment in installing a solar water heater pays for itself in energy savings within eight years, reducing natural gas or electricity use for heating by 50-80 percent. And these systems cost half as much when installed in new homes—offering huge potential for building better.

We can even capture the sun’s energy through simple decisions in the design and orientation of our homes. Strategically-placed windows can allow in the sun’s heat in the winter while blocking heat entry in the summer—drastically reducing heating and air-conditioning costs. Wal-Mart, for example, cut its overall energy costs by 10-15 percent by simply installing skylights to reduce their need for artificial lighting.

Finally, we have only begun to see the potential for solar-powered transportation. The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are only the first two of a new generation of electric cars, and Toyota is already building solar car charging stations for them in Japan. Imagine a future in which solar parking garages charge our cars while we’re at work, displacing dirty gasoline with the warm, clean energy of the sun.

But as with energy efficiency, reaping solar power’s benefits requires policymakers to craft the right incentive structure for builders and business to make the initial investment. Without sufficient short-term incentives, businesses will forego potential long-term benefits. Indeed, a study of canceled solar projects found that two were halted because the companies wanted a three-year payback time, whereas the proposed projects had paybacks of 4.4 and 5.2 years.

Fortunately, just this past year, the Illinois legislature passed two key bills to promote solar power in our state. These bills will create new jobs and new investment in solar power, but federal action is also critical. As the Senate considers climate change legislation, we urge Illinois U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D) and Roland Burris (D) to be sure they include strong incentives for solar power investment.

Bruce Ratain, field associate for Environment Illinois, can be reached at bruce.ratain@gmail.com.

From the July 28-Aug 3, 2010 issue

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