Skip to content
Climate News
Link copied to clipboard

Conference shows the bright future of solar power

Consumer incentives, an infusion of federal stimulus funds, and a favorable political climate have created a golden moment for solar power.

Next to a photovoltaic panel, Sunita Karmacharya of PanelClaw Inc. talks with Jimmy Rugova,a student at Bronx Community College's Center of Sustainable Energy, at the Convention Center. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Next to a photovoltaic panel, Sunita Karmacharya of PanelClaw Inc. talks with Jimmy Rugova,a student at Bronx Community College's Center of Sustainable Energy, at the Convention Center. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Consumer incentives, an infusion of federal stimulus funds, and a favorable political climate have created a golden moment for solar power.

Some homeowners could quickly recoup savings from their solar systems, a longtime industry goal.

Meanwhile, the technology is progressing. Solar collectors can even be disguised to look like roofing material.

In about two years, smaller arrays could be plug-and-play - like room air conditioners - well within the realm of the average handyman.

Although the economy has clouded many a venture, officials yesterday declared a bright new day at the opening of the nation's premier solar-power conference at the Convention Center.

"The industry has opportunities that people could only dream of five years ago," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Last month, President Obama announced $117.6 million in federal stimulus funds for solar, on top of the $175 million solar appropriation in the 2009 federal budget.

The funds "come at a time when they're most needed," said JoAnn Milliken, the Department of Energy's acting solar program manager, a chemist with degrees from La Salle University and the University of Pennsylvania. "A lot of companies are having trouble getting venture capital funding."

Even so, the industry saw a 16 percent rise in installed capacity in 2008, according to an association report, and the number of new solar photovoltaic installations rose more than 50 percent.

Officials said they selected Philadelphia as the host city so they could showcase the region's advances and potential.

Although Pennsylvania has lagged far behind New Jersey in overall solar installations, the commonwealth recently announced a $100 million rebate program that would fund 35 percent of the cost of solar installations for homes and small businesses.

Convention officials also used the occasion to formally recognize Philadelphia as one of 25 cities selected for the Energy Department's Solar America Cities program.

Announced last year, the selection comes with $200,000 in grant money and, perhaps more important, $250,000 in technical assistance from the department's solar experts.

Some of the money was used to fund a new position. Kristin Sullivan, who formerly crisscrossed the nation extolling the virtues of wind power for the Spanish firm Iberdrola, now is the city's program director for the Solar Cities initiative.

Her mission? Get more solar. Get it on city buildings, on office buildings, on homes, and on open space.

The Solar Cities designation dovetails with Philadelphia's Greenworks sustainability plan, released in April.

The plan calls for having 2.3 megawatts of solar power within the city limits by 2011, and 57.8 megawatts - enough to power more than 7,500 homes - by 2021.

To get there, Philadelphia wants to do an inventory of city-owned rooftops and open space to determine the potential for installations. At the moment, the city water department is considering a solar array atop water storage basins at one of its treatment facilities where there are both minimal shading and a thirst for power.

The city wants to develop an online guidebook to help businesses, homeowners, and investors develop projects. Officials also plan to tackle the zoning code, which has no specific provisions for solar installations.

"We're very, very serious about solar power," Mayor Nutter said yesterday, adding that the goals were "doable, achievable, and measurable."

Of the federal stimulus funds, $10 million is targeted specifically for the Solar Cities.

Philadelphia was selected in the second round of Solar City awards. Tom Kimbis, director of the national program, said officials hoped cities would borrow liberally from one another's experience.

San Francisco developed online mapping that allows residents to type in their address and learn what solar can do for them. San Jose tackled the permitting process, shrinking it from a matter of weeks to 48 hours. And Berkeley came up with a way to use property taxes to fund installations.

Austin, Texas, and New Orleans set up model training programs for solar installers.

In New York, engineers figured out how to incorporate solar projects into the aged, highly urban electricity grid. The first was completed in January.

On the exhibit floor - where bright yellow colors and sunbursts dominated - manufacturers, installers, financiers, and others showcased their latest developments.

The Wilmington firm SolarDock has a new rooftop mounting system that doesn't require drilling into the roof.

AE Polysilicon Corp., which plans to begin production at its Fairless Hills plant later this year, is fostering new technology to bring down the cost of panels.

Advocates see a continued drop in the price. In some instances, homeowners can "realize a positive cash flow from day one," Resch said.

He cited the example of a homeowner who takes advantage of all the rebates and tax breaks available, then remortgages at the current low rates to install a system. The energy savings would more than pay for the hike in the monthly mortgage payment, he said.

Akeena Solar, based in Los Gatos, Calif., and headed by Wharton grad Barry Cinnamon, unveiled a system with 80 percent fewer parts - hailed as a breakthrough that will make installations easier and cheaper.

Cinnamon predicted that within two years, smaller solar systems will be all but "plug-and-play." Comparing it to installing a room air conditioner, he said: "It's going to get to the point where you can pick up panels at a Home Depot and install them in a weekend."

But not so fast. There will always be a need for installers, said Chris Phipps of DC Power Systems, based in California, which designs arrays for installers.

Phipps said do-it-yourselfers might be able to handle the smaller installations, but larger systems will always require experts.

Industry professionals will spend the next two days discussing technologies, finances, and renewable-energy credits.

If it seems there is no end to the solar adulation, just wait. On Wednesday, former CIA director and solar advocate James Woolsey will talk about how solar photovoltaics can make the United States more secure by increasing its energy independence.

Solar Show: Hours and Tours

The Convention Center's floor will be open to the public today from noon to 8 p.m for the PV America show.

For more information:

The convention ends tomorrow, but Thursday the tours

of existing installations will begin. The urban tour will take in some of the city's 70-plus solar sites.

One suburban tour includes visits to Media and a new solar roof at the Westtown School ouside West Chester, while another will focus on rural areas in Chester County, including a vineyard.

The fourth tour is of large-scale facilities, including the roof array at the Ortho-McNeil plant in Spring House and the three-megawatt system, the state's largest so far, on open space in Fairless Hills.