10 Burning Questions about the Solar Energy Biz

September 16, 2009

I became a civil engineer because I wanted to make a big impact on society. Over time, I’ve become particularly concerned with society’s impact on the environment. I find large-budget LEED certified “green” projects to be incredibly important steps toward sustainable development. In my current position, however, I’ve been more involved in smaller rehabilitation and renovation projects. Though smaller in scope, these projects are equally important to the environment, because it’s almost always more efficient to re-use our existing building stock.

On a number of occasions, I’ve even had the opportunity to work directly with a company that provides solar panel roof-mounting solutions. We help ensure that the existing structure is capable of supporting the new equipment. I can’t think of a simpler way to help make our buildings greener.

Jeremy Jones, VP of strategic development for SoCore Energy, recently took the time to answer some of my questions about solar power and the future of “green” industries in America.

1) How much power can a solar installation generate?

In the U.S., each kilowatt of solar generating capacity that you install will generate between 1,100 and 1,600 kilowatt hours per year (with Northern latitudes at the low end and say Arizona at the high end). A typical residential system would be about 5kW while commercial installations are typically anywhere from 25kW to 1,000kWs or more.

2) What kinds of engineering challenges has your company faced in attempting to achieve your mission to make solar energy more flexible, more accessible, and more affordable?

Our business is built around trying to eliminate the barriers to more widespread solar adoption. We see the major barriers as a) lack of standardization and b) difficult project requirements. Ultimately, we need to drive down the cost of solar and the lack of standardization both within the system designs as well as the incentives from one state to another prohibit these reductions. Further, there are so many requirements that a project has to meet in order for it to be “viable” that it greatly limits the market expansion. For example, if every project needs to be with a customer who has a AAA credit rating (in order to qualify for financing), 20 years left on their roof warranty, and happens to own their building, solar can never really contribute to our energy mix. Our approach has been to standardize installation practices, increase system portability, and create shorter more flexible contracts for customers so that we can overcome many of these initial sales barriers.

3) How prominent a role do government rebates and tax credits play in people’s decision to install solar panels?

Today, they are absolutely critical. These incentives are creating the economies of scale required for us to reach grid parity and not need incentives in 5-10 years.

4) How will legislation currently under consideration (including cap and trade proposals) affect your industry?

Regarding cap and trade we’ll need to figure out how “Carbon Credits” will ultimately relate to “Solar Renewable Energy Credits,” which are the more common commodity for trading the “renewable” attributes of renewable energy. Separate from cap and trade, we’re very interested to see if a nationwide Renewable Portfolio Standard “RPS” gets passed as this would require all utilities to have a certain portion of their generation from renewables like solar.

5) What role do you think civil engineers will play in developing a new green energy infrastructure?

Civil engineers are playing a key role. As the cost of the technology (the actual photovoltaic cells) decreases, it becomes increasingly important to be very cost efficient with the other components of the system. As part of this, the ability for a project to be efficiently installed (and code compliant), is increasingly important. Civil engineers will play an important role in continuing to innovate on how systems are installed on rooftops and ground racks.

6) How have people’s perceptions of solar energy changed since you first became involved in the industry?

In my nine years in the solar industry, the market has completely changed. What was once an extremely niche product for municipalities and very early adopters is now becoming mainstream. Today, most customers still value the sustainable aspect of the project, but the projects have to make economic sense. In a few more years, I suspect the market will be purely cost based.

Please click here to read Jeremy’s responses to more questions, including:

  • How does a solar panel generate electricity?
  • How long does it take a solar installation to pay for itself?
  • Are solar panels effective in northern climates?
  • Is solar energy still “green” after considering life-cycle costs?
  • Has social media changed how you do business?
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