Month: February 2013

Why is Germany Ahead of California in Solar Development?

California has sun, rooftop space, and a long history of environmental awareness.  California even has a strong desire for clean and renewable energy.  Despite all the advantages that should make California the world’s leader in solar energy, Germany has about 30 times the solar generating capacity of California with over four fifths of this capacity on rooftops.  So, why does California lag so far behind Germany?

For reference, Germany is smaller than California.  It’s not full of sunshine either.  In fact, Germans enjoy about as much sunshine as residents of Seattle.  Yet Germans are adopting solar energy at a very rapid pace.  There are about 350 watts of solar capacity per German compared to 34 watts per Californian.

So, what makes the difference?  A homeowner in Germany with a rooftop solar generating unit can expect to sell each kilowatt for the equivalent of 30 cents US, meaning each hour of sunshine will give the homeowner about $1.40 or so of income.  This is due to the feed-in tariff in place in Germany.  If California had a feed-in tariff comparable to Germany’s, a 4.6 kilowatt setup could earn $3,000 – $5,000 per year for the homeowner.  It doesn’t take long at that rate for a system to pay for itself.

The lesson here is this.  If California wants to encourage solar energy, the government needs to get on board with incentives and tax credits to lower the barriers for the average consumer.  Net metering is a great start.

Visit Sierra Pacific at the Sacramento Home & Garden Show

Make sure you stop by and visit Sierra Pacific's homeshow booth at the Sacramento Home & Garden Show at Cal Expo Building A on March 1st, 2nd and 3rd. We look forward to seeing you at the show.

Solar Pool Heating Makes Good Sense

The solar pool heating industry is a grassroots industry born here in America.  As residential pool ownership soared, the need for pool heating grew with it.  Solar pool heating collector plates and all controls are designed and manufactured here in the US.  California leads the field in production and distribution of solar pool heaters.

Solar pool heaters are simple and extremely reliable.  They have an infinite ability to provide comfortable temperature swimming pools regardless of the weather conditions.  Most importantly, they are absolutely the least expensive method to heat a swimming pool.  With the rising costs of power in California, solar pool heaters just make good sense. 

Solar pool heating cannot keep up with temperature needs on heavily overcast or rainy days.  You may need a backup system such as a gas pool heater or heat pump to make up the temperature difference, especially if you enjoy an unusually warm pool.  Even with a backup system, however, a solar pool heater will supply a large amount of free energy. 

A system of solar controls will direct the water coming from the filter to the solar collectors as long as they are receiving solar energy.  This will continue until your pool reaches the temperature setting you prefer or until solar energy is no longer available.  Then the gas heater is used to make up the temperature difference.  Even with a backup system, however, a solar pool heater will supply a large amount of free energy.

How Does Solar Pool Heating Work?

Solar pool heating is one of the most cost effective ways to have a positive impact on the environment through solar energy.  In the Sacramento area, a typical pool season will cost more than $2,000 to heat a pool with a natural gas system.  Installing a solar pool heating system makes good economic sense, paying for itself quickly.  So, how does solar heating keep your pool warm and comfortable?

Solar pool heading uses unglazed solar panels to collect solar energy for your outdoor pool or spa.  These collectors are the simplest and least expensive of all collectors.  To make the most of your solar pool heating system, you must have an area for the solar panels large enough to fit them easily and give them proper exposure to the sun.  You will want a southern exposure ideally, and may have to add collectors if your roofline does not have a southern surface.

You should plan on a solar collection area that is roughly 60% of the area of your pool surface.  If you don’t have a southern exposure or an ideal collector location, you may want to add panels until your collection area is as large as your pool.

Solar heating is completely automatic.  You simply set the pool thermostat where you want it and let the system do the rest.  Your system will keep your pool at the desired temperature, using gas heat only as a backup when the sun is not available.

California Utility Customers Benefit from Solar Energy on Public Lands

The Obama Administration streamlined the development of large scale solar projects on public land, approving 17 tracts of public land where it says there is the best electricity generating potential and the lowest environmental impact.  The Department of Interior will no longer consider individual project on a case by case basis but will instead direct developers toward the land already approved for utilization.

One of the targeted tracts is a large stretch of the Imperial Valley desert currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  Another approved zone is the West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Zone.  This move incorporates smart planning by identifying appropriate areas for development and matching them with a group of incentives. 

The incentives for development will be assembled based on the requirements of each individual tract of land.  It is anticipated the development incentives package will combine efforts from the Federal and State levels, depending on the needs of the project.

All of this is a win for California utility customers.  The new policy means fewer surveys and faster permitting of new projects.  Each project will still have to go through a review to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, but in general the process of developing solar energy just got easier and faster.  As Californians continue to demand renewable energy, this is a step in the right direction.

Organic Solar Cell Design Based on Nature

Chicago’s Northwestern University researchers were working on making thin-film solar cells more efficient when they turned to nature to help refine their design:  evolution by natural selection.  Solar cells trap light in order to absorb solar energy.  Thin cells make it unlikely that energy will be captured efficiently.

In order to make it more likely that a light photon will be captured in the photovoltaic layer and be turned into electrical power, the researchers decided to add a scattering layer to the cells.  This layer deflects incoming light in all directions, potentially bouncing the light back and forth inside the film. 

This is where the team decided to leverage the power of natural selection.  They used a number of computer generated scattering patterns and analyzed how each of the patterns would scatter light.  They then “mated” the patterns and generated likely “offspring.”  The second generation patterns that did a better job of scattering light were “bred” with other highly efficient patterns.

The end result traps light for three times the span predicted in older models of how light and cells interact.  This is amazing news for solar cell efficiency.  The longer the light remains in the cell, the more likely its power will be trapped and converted by the PV layer.

Smart Grid Will Make It Easier to Integrate Rooftop Solar Energy

The current electrical grid is large and complex, moving electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.  Current technology has not changed much since the mid-20th Century.  Large, steady amounts of power move from centralized generating stations to substations that feed power into local distribution grids. 

Unfortunately, when power comes from varying sources and fluctuates due to renewable energy intermittency, such as clouds forming over solar panels, the system struggles.  It’s also not that great at handling the increasing amount of power being generated on the distribution end, such as rooftop solar.  And, of course, the current grid is vulnerable to massive outages caused by a disruption at a single point of failure.

So, what’s the solution?  A few companies are trying to make the power grid able to rout power around damage the way the internet routes information around a disabled hub.  In order to accomplish this they are working with the utility companies to place digital control systems throughout the grid network.  They are trying to take the kind of technology we use every day and put it to work on our power grid.

The benefits of digital controls are a more stable power grid that regulates voltage efficiently.  It’s estimated this will save as much as 3,000 megawatts of power just on the California grid.  This smart grid will easily incorporate rooftop solar and deal with the intermittent nature of solar and other renewable forms of energy.

California’s Cap and Trade Program Survives Court Challenge

California’s carbon emission credit trading program won a round in state court last week.  The court rejected a suit brought against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) by Citizens Climate Lobby and Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

The suit claimed that CARB’s plan to allow corporations to use carbon emission offset credits to comply with the emissions reduction provisions of California’s climate law AB 32 created a loophole that could be used to avoid making real reductions in greenhouse gas pollution.  They also charged that the emissions trading program gave credit to corporations for making emissions cuts that were already required by law.

Under CARB’s program, companies can use carbon offset credits as a compliance instrument to make their greenhouse gas emissions legal.    CARB has systems in place to make sure outside carbon offsets are valid, but admits itself that the evaluation standard is relatively subjective.

This dismissal doesn’t clear all the issues.  A suit was filed against CARB’s emissions credit auction by the California Chamber of Commerce and is still pending in Sacramento courts.  The Chamber claims the auction is actually a tax that CARB has no authority to levy.  Most analysts believe this case will fail as well and the auction will begin as scheduled in early February.

L.A. Mayoral Candidates Endorses Solar Goal

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s current rooftop solar goal is 382 megawatts by 2020.  This is a six-fold increase over the city’s current 60 megawatts.  In the first mayoral debate, two candidates indicated they support a big, bold vision for solar power in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti made it clear that he will push Los Angeles to generate about a fifth of its electrical power by rooftop solar.  His main competition, City Controller Wendy Greuel, has indicated her support of a similar pledge.

Greuel declared that she believes Los Angeles should rightfully be the solar capital of the world.  Garcetti countered by pledging that his mayoral administration would increase LA’s rooftop solar tenfold by the end of his term in 2018.

Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California reacted to these pledges positively.  “We applaud Mr. Garcetti and Ms. Greuel’s endorsement of a big, bold vision for solar power in Los Angeles.  Making Los Angeles a world-class solar city is a no-brainer solution that will bring cleaner air to the city, help stop global warming, and create local jobs that can’t be outsourced.  We welcome the endorsement of this goal by all of the other mayoral candidates.”