When it comes to harnessing and delivering resident-owned solar power, the market for this renewable energy source is growing in popularity and becoming more affordable – and even residents beyond the Sun Belt are taking advantage.
Since the 1800s, people have been tapping into the sun’s power, harnessing it to do everything from cooking food and running hand-held calculators to fueling rockets and supplying the power grid. Today, photovoltaic (PV) systems use solar cells and panels to capture and convert sunlight into electric power. When a PV system absorbs sunlight, energy passes on to electrons. Those flowing, energized electrons then break free, and in the right conditions, join an electric current—which can then bring power to your home.
Despite conventional wisdom, consumer-members living in Arizona and elsewhere in the Southwest where sunshine is constant aren’t the only ones benefitting from solar energy installations. It’s time to debunk “a common misconception,” says Andrew Cotter, NRECA’s Cooperative Research Network (CRN) senior program management advisor. Sun-drenched regions are “not necessary to produce electricity.”
Tapping solar energy in cold climates is possible, even in places where there is “12 percent less solar energy available,” Cotter says. Think Bismarck, North Dakota: a solar energy system with a one megawatt array, for example, would produce approximately 1,590 MWh (AC) per year in this city, while the same system would produce 1,580 MWh (AC) per year in Jacksonville, Florida. So, how can some place so cold generate as much solar power as a sun-drenched locale?
“While Bismarck has less sunshine, the cooler weather allows the PV modules to take better advantage of what sun is available,” Cotter explains. “PV panels lose efficiency when they get too hot.”
The fact that PV panels work better in cooler weather, as well as gain from reflected sunlight off the Bismarck snow, all help to make up for the smaller amounts of sunshine.
For both co-ops and members, the solar energy market is growing exponentially as the costs of PV system equipment and installation decreases. From a utility perspective, the cost of solar in 2012 was $2,340 per kilowatt-peak (kWp), a drop of more than 40 percent from 2010. Homeowners installing rooftop solar systems also saw a cost savings—in 2012, the price was under $2,000 per kWp from the 2010 price of $5,710/kW.
But as co-ops look ahead at the shifting solar market, there are challenges. Dealing with increasing amounts of resident-owned solar is something that co-ops have found to be no more challenging than other obstacles they have faced,” Cotter says. “As long as member-consumers communicate their interest in residential solar, the co-ops have the skill set to maintain a safe, reliable grid.