Friday, September 26, 2008

The Ever-Evasive Tax Credit Renewal

As most of you already know, the Senate passed House Bill 6049 as amended last Tuesday, Sept. 23 by a 93 to 2 vote with 5 abstentions. Today, the House passed its final version by a 226-166 but according to a story in the Tucson Citizen the "White House has (again) threatened to veto the House bill over its funding mechanism, and opponents have called the bill a dead end. Should President Bush veto the energy bill without a challenge by Congress, the credit will expire Dec. 31." If this happens, there might be a last gasp effort during a lame-duck session after the general elections. As the bill now stands, the tax credit for residential solar currently capped at $2000 will be a straight 30%, the same as commercial solar investments. If the bill either dies or is again vetoed by Bush, the tax credit ends December 31. More news, if any, will be reported here. For background on this issue read the Aug 27 post "Who Needs a Tax Credit?" in this blog.

Big Solar Event Next Month in San Diego

The Solar Power International Conference and Expo 2008 is just three weeks away. Billed as the largest solar event in the world, it will run October 13-16 at the San Diego Convention Center. Reported as a sell-out for conferences and daytime exposition, there will be a free public session on Wednesday evening, 6-9 pm, for adults only. This is a business-to-business type of event.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two Solar Must-Have Books

Purchasing a solar power system for home or business is not an impulse buy. At least not yet, anyway. In fact, early adapters of relatively new technologies do a fair amount of their own due diligence before taking the Big Step.

There are two books I've read and refer to often. They keep me excited about the very wonder of photovoltaics and the boundless future of the industry.

The first is From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity by John Perlin (Harvard University Press, 2002). Since reading it in 2004, I've found Perlin to be perhaps the foremost PV maven of solar power. As the title would imply, it's a history of photovoltaics from Roman times to the near-latest in crystalline and thin-film technologies. (I say near-latest as PV and CPV--concentrating photovoltaics--have been improving, of course, since '04.) Well-written and understandable, From Space to Earth tells solar triumphs that have already solved energy problems in both the developed world and the Third World.

Perlin talks about how Australia was able to electrify the entire continent without miles of cable and towers but with microwave relay stations powered by solar. He explains how an ancient African tribe was always dependent on the women in a family to lug water daily from a river miles away just for cooking and washing. Today, underground aquifers have been tapped and water is pumped with solar power. Now there is not only enough water for daily living but enough to grow crops for the tribe and to take to market creating a micro-economy that had never existed. In both cases, solar power negates the need for expensive infrastructure to be built.

The other book I recommend is Exponential Solar--The Future of Solar Energy (IPESsol Inc., 2007). Written by engineer Dave Heidenreich and his staff at Innovative Power and Energy Storage Solutions in Ohio, the book parallels the computer's transformation of the world beginning in 1958 to with the potential for solar power in the next 50 years. The book's website,, does the best job of capsulizing its content:

"Exponential Solar is a book that will awaken you to solar's incredible potential to solve our energy supply and global warming dilemmas. Without being scholarly or highly technical, it presents fascinating concepts gathered from a variety of energy disciplines that clearly show how solar could grow to become the world's dominant power source. It is written for non-technical readers who have an interest in renewable energy, but may doubt that solar could provide a practical solution to powering cars, homes, and businesses - for themselves or for the world. Exponential Solar provides an understandable and compelling vision."

Although both books can be purchased online, check with your local library or bookstore first.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pickens: J.R. Ewing with a Twist?


When I saw T. Boone Pickens' first wind power ad in June, I nearly fell off the couch. Finally, a Texas "oily" who really saw the light. Someone with enough money to spearhead renewable energy--wind--along with a pitch for solar. Then I got to thinking.

Pickens will continue to get billions from natural gas as more states restrict the burning of coal for electricity. As a depleting commodity, natural gas can only get more costly--and profitable--for Pickens. Granted, natural gas is cleaner burning than coal but as a fossil fuel it still emits greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide. Investing in wind power by Pickens would appear as a forward-thinking and downright noble move on his part. The gist of the matter to me is it's a win-win for Pickens who then has two cash cows. Instead of paying for Pickens' natural-gas-generated electricity ratepayers also will be paying for Pickens' wind-power-generated electricity.

Don't get me wrong--there's nothing wrong with making a profit. The success of our country has come from a tradition of representational democracy and making a buck. But the Pickens Plan smells more like rank opportunism than altruism.

The sun and the wind it produces is for all of us--at least for now. Solar and wind power are eqalitarian in that their use for energy is equally available to many today--and hopefully to everyone very soon. I shudder to think that Big Oil and for-profit utilities make major investments in renewable energy allowing them to maintain sole control of energy as a commodity.

Would corporate-owned massive solar and wind farms provide us with cheaper electricity? Not necessarily. Even with plentiful sun and wind available would utilities control electricity supply to manipulate rates? History shows they could. Furthermore, whether utilities produce or buy renewable power, they will still remain in control of transmission and distribution which accounts for most of today's electricity charges. When individuals, businesses and co-ops decide to generate the majority of their electricity needs with grid-tied systems and net metering, they are exercising their rights to control their own energy future.

Towns and cities could do the same. Citizens of Los Angeles get most of their power from the municipally-held LA Department of Water & Power. Their rates are significantly lower than their surrounding neighbors who must use (publically-held, for-profit) Southern California Edison. LA is pushing solar power in and around the Harbor and LADWP offers rebates for residential and commercial solar installations. (The rebate program is separate from the California Solar Initiative which provides rebates for SCE, PG&E and SDG&E ratepayers.) Cities and states hold the authority to require utilities to buy solar- and wind-powered electricity, thus helping keep some control of future energy needs in the hands of the citizens. New cities can make renewable energy part of their charters and begin their own municipal utilities.

Mr. Pickens has funded Proposition 10 on the Nov. 4 ballot here in California. It's designed to give sizeable tax subsidies to natural gas-powered vehicles over hybrid vehicles. A review (below) of this proposition reveals a cynical and self-serving man. He's more like J.R. Ewing but with a twist. (


Thursday, September 11, 2008

NY Times' Friedman Passionate about Solar

New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman was on PBS's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross on Sept. 8. His new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded was just published and was the subject of the interview.

(Listen online:

Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer prizewinner, spoke forcefully about America's need to lead the world's green revolution which he calls "geo-greening." He was critical of both presidential candidates on issues. He disparaged John McCain for not voting eight times in the Senate to extend the federal investment tax credit for solar and wind power. McCain, supposedly a proponent of clean energy, was even in Washington during the last vote. The extension was short a single vote from passing. Friedman said Barack Obama voted three times to extend the tax credit and that he reviewed and admires Obama's energy platform. However, he does not feel Obama has enough political will to put his energy policy in place should he win in November.

Listening to the Friedman interview is strongly recommended. Much of what he talks about is captured in this excerpt:

"The core argument is very simple: America has a problem and the world has a problem. America's problem is that it has lost its way in recent years partly because of 9/11 and partly because of the bad habits that we have let build up over the last three decades, bad habits that have weakened our society's ability and willingness to take on big challenges. The world also has a problem: It is getting hot, flat, and crowded. That is, global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable. In particular, the convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is tightening energy supplies, intensifying the extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty, strengthening petro-dictatorship, and accelerating climate change. How we address these interwoven global trends will determine a lot about the quality of life on earth in the twenty-first century.

"I am convinced that the best way for America to solve its big problem the best way for America to get its "groove" back is for us to take the lead in solving the world's big problem. In a world that is getting hot, flat, and crowded, the task of creating the tools, systems, energy sources, and ethics that will allow the planet to grow in cleaner, more sustainable ways is going to be the biggest challenge of our lifetime. But this challenge is actually an opportunity for America. If we take it on, it will revive America at home, reconnect America abroad, and retool America for tomorrow. America is always at its most powerful and most influential when it is combining innovation and inspiration, wealth-building and dignity-building, the quest for big profits and the tackling of big problems. When we do just one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, we are greater than the sum of our parts--much greater."


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tax Credit Ends Dec. 31:

Get an Installation Guarantee

Anyone contemplating getting solar power installed at home or at work needs to get off the dime. The solar investment tax credit, part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, expires December 31, 2008.

For homeowners this means losing a 30% tax credit on the cost of a photovoltaic system, capped at $2000. Commercial entities will lose a straight 30% solar investment tax credit.

For large PV systems, say, 500kW or more, it is unlikely there is enough time left to install and commission systems by year's end. Design, engineering, environmental reviews (if necessary), procurement of components, installation, inspections and commissioning are time consuming even on a fast track schedule.

Get a guarantee

Several large entities like water treatment plants and military bases require bid bonds in their requests for proposals (RFP). Bid bonds are a financial guarantee by a surety to the project owner, that the contractor will honor his bid price, enter into a contract and supply the required performance and payment bonds. The bid bond amount is usually 5 to 20% of the total bid amount. If the contractor fails to honor his bid or cannot furnish the performance or payment bonds, the surety is liable for the difference between the first and second bidder up to the face amount of the bond.

As the solar industry is still relatively new, many solar integrators have not built enough credit history in their businesses to even be bondable. Although this deters some newer (smaller) solar integrators, it also tempers a potential bidder's urge to submit an unrealistically low estimate just to land a project.

If you are about to go solar and are counting on the federal tax credit, get a guarantee it will be installed AND commissioned by December 31. Require a bid bond by your installer for a project over 50kW. Otherwise, get a written guarantee from the installer (or an addendum to the installation contract) that the system will be finished by the deadline OR the contractor either will pay $2000 or deduct it from the final payment if the deadline is not met.

There is already a run on PV system components as a glut of systems are being rushed to completion. Procurement of panels for some dealer/installers is already dicey in several areas. Simply stated, delayed installation may or may not be the installer's fault.

For those of you who will still install with or without a tax credit, I commend you. But for those who need incentives to make a PV system financially feasible, take charge of your position. It's your money.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Solar Power and Greenhouse Gases:
A Weighty Subject

Let's set the record straight: Solar power is not a totally green source of electricity but it is 89% in that direction. The present day manufacturing of photovoltaic (PV) system components must use existing power sources mostly generated by burning fossil fuels. Later, as more clean, renewable energy is produced this 11% will diminish proportionally. Solar is undoubtedly the avenue to pursue.

As solar bypasses fossil-fueled electricity it prevents greenhouse gas emissions by the ton. This is hugely significant because burning coal, oil and natural gas for electricity makes the most pollution on the planet. Carbon dioxide released from burning petroleum makes the most impact on the environment as it traps heat in the atmosphere raising mean temperatures. Granted, Earth has a history of warm and cold eras but the rapid heating since the 1950s is unprecedented. The vast preponderance of scientists agree it is a man-made phenomenon caused by burning fossil (carbon-rich) fuels.

Let's review how carbon dioxide is weighed in a way to which we can all relate. A gallon of gasoline weighs about six pounds (a gallon of water, 8.33 lbs) but produces about 19 lbs of carbon dioxide after burning. Sounds impossible, right? The calculation is interesting.*

Consider a single molecule of octane, a typical hydrocarbon found in gasoline. Octane consists of eight atoms of carbon and 18 atoms of hydrogen, written as C8H18. If you break down the octane and mix it with enough oxygen (O2), you've got the ingredients--the atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen--to make eight molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nine molecules of water (H2O). The eight molecules of CO2 weigh about three times more than the one molecule of octane you started with. (This does not violate the law of conservation of mass because the weight of oxygen from the air is added to the weight of the carbon from the gasoline.)

Estimating this way is not hard and fast so some assumptions must be made. The Environmental Protection Agency first determines how much carbon is in each particular kind of gasoline and then comes up with a weighted average based on consumption levels for each variety. Using this method, EPA estimates a gallon of gas contains an average of 2,421 grams of carbon which can produce 8,877 grams of CO2. They multiply that number by 0.99 to account for the carbon that doesn't react fully with the oxygen. Their result: 8,788 grams, or about 19.4 pounds.

Applying the same basic calculation to fossil-fueled electricity generation and developing countries adding new coal-fired plants by the week, global warming appears out of control. Solar and wind power are the key components to the solution.

* How Gasoline Becomes CO2.

Photos courtesy FreeFoto:

Solar in the News

This feature provides objective, third-party articles about solar power worldwide. Press releases and stories generated by entities in the article will be avoided as self-serving.

Phoenix Suns Utilizing Bigger Ball: The Sun

The Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team has announced that they will be installing 1,125 solar panels on their parking garage to help power their arena...

UC-San Diego Installing 1.2MW PV System
The University of California, San Diego, in support of its ambitious goal of being the greenest university in the U.S., is installing a 1.2 MW solar electric system as part of its comprehensive sustainable energy program...

Utility-Scale Solar Comes to California
One of the largest photovoltaic solar projects in the world will be located in California to deliver 1.65 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy annually...

Was Jimmy Carter Right About Energy 30 Years Ago?
Americans, who hate to be told they must change, roundly condemned Carter's memorable "Crisis of Confidence" speech of July 15, 1979...

Another Approach to Concentrated Solar
While other companies are working to make solar cheaper by using mirrors or lenses to magnify sunlight that is directed onto solar cells, Morgan Solar takes a different approach...


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