Solar electricity is gaining ground in U.S., worldwide

Industry says incentives of states make difference

July 23, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Tom and Frances Yuhas are your everyday environmentalists. They recycle, grow their own vegetables and drive a Honda hybrid. But they still like the suburban comforts of central air and an outdoor pool.

So when it came time to replace their old oil furnace, the energy-conscious couple made a natural choice. Four months ago, they outfitted their 1954 Pasadena ranch-style home with sleek new solar panels.

Now, their house on the Magothy River no longer smells of oil fumes. Their $80-a-month electric bill has dropped almost in half. To help make this happen, the state reimbursed $3,000 of their $30,000 installation.

Best of all, says Tom Yuhas, a 39-year-old business consultant: "It's a purchase we feel good about."

Solar electricity, pioneered in the 1970s but long preferred only by the most environmentally correct, is gaining popularity in the general population as more states reward its use - and more consumers try to cut their utility costs.

"It's a consumer decision," says Steven Taub, a senior researcher at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.

"Electricity rates are generally going up because of fuel costs, while the cost of solar energy is going down. So you have more customers finding it an attractive investment."

Business is up worldwide. The solar industry, while still a sliver of the overall energy market, is growing rapidly, by 37 percent a year during the past five years, Taub said. That's largely because of demand in Germany and Japan, where it's heavily subsidized.

It's also on the rise in the United States as the silicon wafers that convert sunlight into electricity get cheaper and easier to install. The San Francisco Giants' stadium now generates solar power. So do Georgetown University, the Pentagon - and roughly 300,000 homes across the country, three times as many as in 2000.

Most are in the sunny Southwest and on the West Coast. Strong demand for electricity, coupled with soaring utility rates, has prompted Texas and California to aggressively market "green" alternatives, particularly wind and solar power.

Rates are flat here

Electric rates elsewhere in the nation, including Maryland, have stayed relatively flat in recent years. Nonetheless, dozens of states have introduced tax breaks and cash rebates to boost solar power in hopes of improving the reliability of their electric grids - and easing their dependence on fossil fuels.

Maryland briefly offered a limited tax break for solar installations, which ended last June. This year, the Maryland Energy Administration set up a $103,500 fund to promote solar purchases. Far more homeowners lined up than expected: the money ran out after 44 of 72 applicants received grants, including the Yuhases.

"Is demand up? Absolutely," says Tim LaRonde, manager of the solar grant program. "I didn't know what to expect, how much marketing to do. It turned out we really didn't need much."

Maryland has only a few hundred solar-powered homes. Electricity is still relatively cheap in the state; Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., for example, has frozen its rates since 1999. That will come to an end next July, and prices could go up, depending on the wholesale market for electricity.

Making solar panels

It might not be a big consumer, but Maryland is a top solar producer.

BP Solar, the energy giant's solar division, has its U.S. headquarters in Frederick. The factory, which employs 500, plans to add 50 employees and new equipment soon as part of a $25 million expansion.

Production has been ramped up to keep pace with the flood of new orders, says Bill Poulin, North American product line manager. These days, the plant produces enough solar panels to generate 30,000 kilowatts of electricity, 20 times as much as when it opened in 1987.

Solar production worldwide has made the same sort of leap: Output is now 1.2 million kilowatts a year. That's enough to power 600,000 homes, or all of Baltimore and much of surrounding Baltimore County. It's up from 694,000 kilowatts produced in 1994.

Inside the BP factory, easily recognizable from Route 70 by its trademark blue solar panels, goggle-wearing workers turn raw silicon into a modern technology.

Big chunks of silicon are melted in giant furnaces. The resulting bricks are cut into wafers. Cleaning and chemical etching follow. In the end, the blue-toned cells are soldered into panels, framed and loaded into boxes to be shipped across the country.

Call for incentives

Peter Lowenthal wishes more would stay in Maryland. The director of the local chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, argues that the state should adopt more aggressive incentives.

"It's not going gangbusters in this area," Lowenthal says. "It's ironic that we use our low-cost electricity in Maryland to produce solar cells that we ship all over, except to Maryland."

Homeowners buy solar systems for different reasons, he and other industry leaders say.

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