By Heather Rothbauer-Wanish | As summer heats up, more and more of us are soaking up the sunlight and enjoying the extra daylight hours. For those looking for alternative energy sources, solar energy may be a consideration for the future. Although solar energy may appear to be the wave of the future, the use of solar energy has been around for many years. Many ancient civilizations worshipped the sun as a source or cause for life. During the late 15th-century, Leonardo da Vinci utilized concave mirrors to heat water, thereby harnessing the power of the sun. It is this type of thinking that has encouraged entrepreneurs and business owners to offer solar energy as a product or service to customers today.
As the existence of fossil fuels becomes more and more of an issue, a renewable resource like solar energy becomes more popular. While renewable energy technology continues to develop, evolve and become less costly, the cost of fossil fuels continues to increase.
Joe Maurer, designer at Next Step Energy in Eau Claire, helps residents and businesses with their energy needs. “Our company has been in business for 28 years; we are a full-service renewable energy installer for residential, business, and institutional applications,” he said. “Solar Thermal and Solar Photovoltaic (PV) installations are our focus; however, we also install high efficiency heating systems including radiant floor heating,” Maurer continued. Solar thermal is typically used to heat homes and businesses, reducing the need for natural gas or electric heating systems. By contrast, solar photovoltaic systems are used to convert sunlight to direct current (DC) electricity. An inverter is then able to convert DC current into AC current, the standard electricity used in the United States.
According to Maurer, renewable energy is a growth industry that he wished to explore. “I could see the growing opportunity in renewable energy and wanted to get involved. My background is in design and I really see energy efficiency and usage as a design problem.” He explained. Because of the growth of the solar power industry, there is currently a shortage of skilled laborers in the field. Maurer is a part of a group which builds curriculum around the day-to-day activities of a solar installer. “It is encouraging to see higher education taking on renewable energy,” he said.
Steps to Getting Started with Renewable Energy from Focus on Energy
- Learn all about it.
- Schedule a site assessment.
- Call an installer; obtain estimates.
- Check zoning, utility requirements, insurance and other legalities.
- Secure financing.
- Learn how to maintain your system – safely.
- Enjoy saving money and energy.
Even during the current economic downturn, many businesses that offer solar energy and alternative energy sources have not seen a sharp decline in business. “We are seeing a growing awareness of renewable energy due in part to excellent incentive programs available through Focus on Energy and other federal funding.” Explained Maurer. The focus on renewable energy sources expands beyond solar energy as well. “Wind is the most popular sought after technology, but solar electric is the most popular to install.” Maurer said. In fact, approximately 80 percent of first-time calls to Next Step Energy involve questions about wind generation systems. “We install wind generation systems; however, they are very site-specific and have a maintenance regime which makes them a very specialized technology.” Maurer said. Customers are encouraged to try Solar PV or Solar Hot Water as a competitive energy offset that requires less maintenance.
When reviewing the potential options for solar systems, a home or business owner must consider either an off-grid option or a grid-interconnected option. According to Next Step Energy, the off-grid system has no connection to the electric utility grid and uses batteries for power when the sun is not shining. This type of system is popular where there is no current electrical service provided. The other alternative, a grid interconnected system, does not use batteries and is easier to install. This system uses the utility grid to store energy when there is a power surplus. Depending upon your specific needs and goals, either a grid interconnected system or an off-grid option are both viable alternatives.
Advantages of Solar Electric Systems:
- Clean energy
- Totally nonpolluting
- Robust design
- Systems and components are made to last for decades
- Low maintenance
- Virtually indestructible and need only occasional rinsing
Disadvantages of Solar Electric Systems:
- Cloudy days
- Climates vary globally, solar is only part of the answer
- System cost
- Still more expensive than nonrenewable energy
Courtesy of Next Step Energy website.
So, how does a homeowner or business decide which type of renewable energy may be the best option? Next Step Energy conducts an on-site assessment to determine the client’s needs and energy usage. “We recommend getting a site assessment as a first step. We offer both solar PV and solar hot water site assessments. These are ‘big picture’ studies which detail the solar window, energy use per system performance, installation measures and available incentives.” Maurer said. Maurer first recommends checking with Focus on Energy to determine if you are eligible for incentive programs towards a renewable energy system. Secondly, if you own and operate a rural business or farm, you may be eligible for a USDA grant.
Depending upon the system installed, prices for renewable energy can vary greatly. However, if viewed in the long-term perspective, solar panels and energy are a resource that is renewable, clean, and efficient. The costs that are paid up-front may well pay for themselves many times over. Companies like Next Step Energy encourage customers to view all alternatives. “Renewable systems are a site-specific technology. We are not afraid to redirect customers to other energy saving measures if it is apparent a system would not work efficiently on their site.” Maurer said.
Ultimately, the choice for energy can come down to cost, timing, and personal preference. Everyone should be aware that there are many options available to them, in addition to the local electrical company. By investigating the alternatives, costs, and compatibility, customers can make informed decisions, and quite possibly, help “shine” a little light on solar energy.
Heather Rothbauer-Wanish is a local freelance writer and public speaker. She owns Feather Communications. Visit the website at: www.feather-communications.com. Heather also serves as the Business and Accounting Program Chair at Globe University in Eau Claire