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Solar Energy for America

Keeping Solar Local!

By Fred Greenhalgh

It’s been nearly 60 years since the first photovoltaic, or PV module was invented by Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. This pioneering technology went on to supply power for NASA’s first permanent satellite, and even in those days people imagined that sunlight might provide the bulk of humanity’s energy needs. “Oil is on the way out, and solar is on the way in,” said an Exxon representative in June 1977.

Three decades later, the United States has ceded its leadership in renewable energy to countries more serious about tackling their dependence on carbon energy. Germany is a stellar example of a country that has used smart public policy to drive strong private investment in solar, resulting in its ability to phase out nuclear energy and plan for 80% renewable energy by 2050. China’s aggressive subsidies and push for cost efficiencies have led to more than a doubling of Asia’s market share of the global PV industry.

  • More than 723MW of solar were installed in the first quarter of 2013 (up 33% from 2012) in the U.S.
  • In 2012 the U.S.’s share of globally installed solar nearly doubled from 6.5% to 12%.

Installation of one of the first solar panels on a rural Georgia phone pole on Oct. 4, 1955. Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs

Solar is becoming a powerful economic engine, increasingly dotting the rooftops of housing and businesses. We have the skilled people to install this equipment, why can’t we also make it in America? Though American manufacturers have struggled over the years, the bright-side answer is: yes we can.

Bring on the Sun

With China, Japan, and Europe claiming well over 93% of the PV panel market, it’s no easy task to find solar panels manufactured in the United States. The steep drop in solar panel prices in 2008-2011 (largely a result of the global economic downturn and the Chinese influence mentioned above) forced many U.S. solar manufacturers into bankruptcy and others to move operations overseas.

One manufacturer that remains in the U.S. is Suniva, based in Norcross, Ga.
“We like Suniva.” said Fortunat Mueller, an engineer at Exeter-based ReVision Energy, “Rather than focusing on the lowest-cost product, Suniva instead focuses on producing PV modules that are both high-efficiency and cost-competitive. They also are a well-established company, which gives us confidence they will be around long-term to honor their warranties decades in the future.”

Dave Gould of Candia, N.H., who invested in a 27.5kW solar array said, “We try to buy local and buy American whenever feasible. In this instance, the price was not much higher to buy the Suniva modules, and they looked better to boot so it was an easy decision. We love our solar array!”

Inverters Are Not All the SMA

In order to utilize solar-generated electricity in conventional appliances and lighting, homes must also have DC-to-AC inverters. One example is the German-owned SMA inverters, which are manufactured by their SMA America division in Colorado. “SMA’s exacting German engineering and quality construction leads to an extremely reliable and flexible product,” said Mueller.
SMA’s business boasts a large number of innovations. One of the most dramatic is a new-to-the-industry feature that allows a solar home to run loads directly off the solar inverter in event of a power outage.

Also deserving of mention is Solectria, an inverter manufacturer based in Lawrence, Mass. Solectria is a great “buy local” option and is a popular choice for solar installations throughout New England.

Drive Local, too

The planet’s future depends on finding a better way to get from point A to point B, and American companies are among those leading the way.

There’s a great immigrant story in Elon Musk, who left South Africa in the 1990s to head to California. Musk founded and sold PayPal in the dot-com boom, before going on to found three amazing companies, including Tesla. Despite initial skepticism, Detroit automakers have been racing to catch up with Tesla with the launch of the innovative Chevy Volt and Ford Focus Electric (to come later this year).

Need a charge? You can plug-in with an American-made car charger – with Clipper Creek units built in Auburn, California, or the GE WattStation built in Auburn, Maine. Electric car chargers are becoming increasingly common, with the U.S. Department of Energy listing them at www.aldc.energy.gov/fuels/electricty_locations.html.

A Nissan LEAF plugged into USA-made Clipper Creek EV charging station at the Exeter, NH

Renewable Energy

The reality is that manufacturing is global. Regardless of where solar panels come from, the money they save from fossil fuels is likely to stay local. An estimated $2 billion leaves just New Hampshire, alone, each year — to import liquid fossil fuels. Saving even a small percent of that would have significant effects on the local economy.

On the front lines of solar are determined individuals, savvy businesses, and community-driven organizations, who are taking advantage of solar technology to cut their ties from burdensome oil and electric bills. Now the challenge is for the United States to regain its leadership before other countries dominate this rising industry.

Fred Greenhalgh is a Media Manager at Revision Energy in their Exeter, NH branch. He is committed to sustainability and simple living, and is also a passionate writer. Since 2007 he has been producing a radio show called Radio Drama Revival at community station WMPG, as well as his own fiction stories as audio plays with his award-winning FinalRune Productions. Revision Energy also has branches in Portland and Liberty, Maine. Learn more at www.revisionenergy.com.

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