Sunny skies for solar power

Alternative source: With energy uncertainties, photovoltaic cells get a new surge of consumer interest.

May 11, 2001

THE SKIES are getting brighter for solar power, amid mounting concerns about energy prices and supply. This despite President Bush's decision to cut solar research funding in half, after sim- ilar research cutbacks by U.S. utilities.

Demand for solar cells grew 40 percent last year. The California power crunch is spurring a surge of inquiries from consumers nationwide about installations.

Maryland-based BP Solar just announced the world's largest solar project, supplying energy with sun panels to 150 remote villages in the Philippines.

Most demand still comes from overseas, where energy costs are higher, and in places where solar panels (like cellular telephones) can avoid building transmission lines. More than three-quarters of the photovoltaic cells produced in the United States are sold abroad.

But that situation is turning around, and not just in the Sunbelt. Look at Maryland.

The Powell Convention Center in Ocean City will install a solar water heater for its expanded year-round catering operations, to hedge against future electricity-rate shock. The new state Department of Environment headquar-

ters will have solar energy. Government buildings in Montgomery and Prince George's counties include sun power panels. The first of 200 U.S. BP Amoco gas stations with solar panel power opened in Olney 18 months ago.

New Maryland law grants tax credits of up to $2,000 for installing solar electric systems. Another recent state law provides cash grants of up to $3,600 for installing photovoltaic systems in houses.

New technology continues to cut the cost of sun power. But government subsidies are still needed to make home solar systems, costing from $10,000 to $90,000, feasible. As more consumers seek to control their own power, however, the solar option shines brighter.

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