Solar Energy: Time to Open the Blinds

This year's solar decathlon has a different feel than previous years. The entries have become more sophisticated, and more attentive to multi-purpose living spaces and attractive interior design.

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The timing of such a high-profile solar showcase couldn’t be more critical. Solar installations in the U.S. have risen dramatically in the last couple of years, but predictably, as this “new” technology booms, old industries such as coal and oil-fired utility companies are feeling threatened. Arizona’s utility is trying to slow or stop the solar upswell, by reducing consumer incentives for going solar.

At the same time, state and local governments in some areas are giving a real boost to solar with tax incentives and rebates. And the battle to give solar a fighting chance in the marketplace has advocates from all political persuasions.

Meanwhile, the cost of solar technology continues to decline, so quickly that the fall has alarmed some analysts. Descriptions of the price drop range from “precipitous” to “inexorable” to “epic.” Last year, CleanTechnica reported that:

“Prices for solar PV modules and panels have been falling fast from 2008 right on through 2012, according to industry data. The marginal weekly spot price of silicon solar modules (panels) was $0.654 per watt, with a low price of $0.54 and a high of $1.00 per watt as of January 16, 2013, according to PVinsights data.”

Those falling prices were great for consumers, of course, and led to a lot more people getting into residential solar, but U.S. manufacturers have been getting hammered by low-cost panels from overseas. Now, the U.S. Commerce Dept. has imposed 31% tariffs on certain Chinese solar imports. This might level the playing field for U.S. panel makers, but it could also hurt the overall market for panels here. Perhaps this is what happens every time a new technology begins to displace an old one.

Remember when low-VOC paints began to replace the volatile compounds of yesteryear? I heard a lot of contractors complain, but cleaner, greener paints are now the norm.

And remember the naysayers who scoffed at hybrid cars? There’s one in every neighborhood now. Solar is coming on strong, and unless something better gets here first, it’s going to burn away the opposition over time. Advice to those standing in the way: Let go, or be dragged.

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