Bright, sunshiny thoughts


I almost ran the clock out on this one, but one of my goals for 2014 was to crunch some numbers for the modern breed of solar power installations. I wanted to get a sense of how feasible solar photovoltaic (PV) energy can be these days. I used to be a financial analyst in the energy industry, so I felt long overdue for a fresh look at this niche.

Solar energy has been around for a long time, but can we say that it has arrived?

Yes. It has arrived. Good things are going to happen.

Hey, I’m all for good times, so I’m going to mention some happy notions today in the solar power context. I’m not going to get technical here. In the spirit of the season I am deliberately looking at the optimistic side of the solar equation because I know it’s a popular gig.

I will mention, though, that good data was hard to get. When it comes to data, having worked in the kitchen, I don’t trust what’s on the menu. So I had to find a way to get first-hand numbers for the sort of project I wanted to evaluate. It took most of the year to find my way to somebody sane and credible. I finally found a cooperative CPA who was willing to let me get an onsite look at a solar installation and its data. It was the right project, of the right scale, and in the right area. Yippee—it’s about time! And I’m promised more data next year, after which I’ll be able to really dig into things.

From the data I was able to gather thus far, I have to say, I’m impressed with PV. The new technology is far better than the old stuff.

It’s not just the solar cells themselves that have improved. Other important elements in the equation, such as inverters, have evolved as well.

What we’re seeing, then, is a one-hand-washes-the-other dynamic, as various elements in the equation make each other even more useful. This creates a virtuous cycle. Not that I know anything about virtue but I read about it once.

OK, now for some bright, sunshiny thoughts.

First of all, if you want to entertain notions about people driving electric cars and recharging them via solar power installations, well, that’s a realistic expectation for the future, at least in certain situations in certain areas.

On that note, moving our focus from a power source (solar) to a thing being powered (the car), electric cars don’t have to be glorified golf carts. The Tesla, for example, is a luxury car. They even have an electric SUV in the works.

Let’s get off the highway and into paradise now. If you’re building your tropical dream home in a place too remote to tie to a power grid, PV is getting more feasible all the time. “Feasible” doesn’t mean “magical,” of course, and no matter how good PV gets, solar power is still solar power with its own limitations and characteristics, so it’s often combined with other sources of power to fill in the gaps.

Meanwhile, for most residential or business situations, that other source of power is, of course, the grid itself. This is where we’ll be seeing the most action. By adding PV to the mix, consumers can use it to supplant some grid energy. This is common in some places nowadays, or at least it’s common enough that it’s not uncommon. In fact, in some places, consumers can sell their excess PV power to the utility via the grid, but the cases I’ve seen had pretty skinny prices for that. Depending on location, various government subsidies can be the deciding financial factor, so it further emphasizes that every case has to be evaluated on its own specific merits if someone wants to get a handle on the financial end of things.

And I’ll note that, according to any data that I’ve seen over the years, PV is, on average, far more expensive than grid juice. But the critical thing to heed is that, again, it’s the specifics of any given project that really matter. PV does make financial sense in some cases, and it doesn’t make sense in other cases. So don’t get distracted by averages: Would you buy a suit based on the dimensions of the “average” person? No; you’d want measurements for your specific case.

Well, this completes my random list of solar energy highlights. There’s a lot to like in this realm.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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