solar panels

Solar panels cover the roof of a California business, SA Recycling.

In 2008, solar electric capacity in the United States jumped 63 percent, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. California leads the nation in this particular trend. Our installed solar photovoltaic capacity more than doubled from 2006 to 2008.


In a world increasingly defined by shortages and environmental tradeoffs, clean, renewable energy sources like the sun offer some promise for the future.

Dina Predisik works on solar power development at Anaheim Public Utilities. Technically, her title is “program development specialist,” and she was kind enough to give me a primary school explanation on how solar panels can turn light into electricity.

Photons — bundles of light energy generated by the sun – are continually bombarding the Earth. When they strike a solar panel, the photons knock loose some electrons, which are then transformed into electricity. After that, an inverter converts the electrical current from DC to AC and the juice is ready to use.

“We have light everywhere in the daytime. That light has energy associated with it. If we capture it from a free fuel source, that’s exciting.”

Solar power, Predisik predicts, should one day be as common as air conditioning.

That’s why it was, figuratively speaking, way cool to learn that SA Recycling recently completed the largest commercial solar array in the city of Anaheim. The project includes more than 2,500 panels blanketing 70,000 square feet of roof – nearly 2 acres. That’s like carpeting the castle at Medieval Times.

Thanks to a combination of improving technology and generous incentives, the project shows how solar power is possible, desirable and feasible.

It’s not just for the Birkenstock set any more. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, solar power became mainstream.

The flat, blue silicon-based panels atop SA Recycling sparkle in the sunlight, like jewelry for a roof. Except the panels aren’t there for adornment.

They should produce more than 715,000 kilowatt hours per year – enough to power 120 homes for a year. The project will reduce the plant’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by over 1 million pounds.

SA Recycling has been supplying its own power since the solar system went operational Dec. 31. Because its shredding and metal recovery operations are energy intensive, the firm can’t use the sun to meet all of its needs. But it does generate enough power to run the computers and lights in its business offices without ever having to worry about rate hikes.

Solar power seems like the energy future waiting to happen. That’s why federal and state governments partner with local utilities to encourage its use.

Anaheim Public Utilities offers education, incentives and technical support on all things solar through its Solar Advantage Program. Residents and businesses alike can take advantage of the support. The utility also can help expedite the solar-oriented design review and approval process. It helped pull permits for SA Recycling’s solar project in about two weeks.

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Jeff Farano Jr. oversaw the project for SA Recycling. He explains that the company’s decision was not based wholly on the bottom line.

“Green is what we do… This was just another step in that direction.”

For now, solar power doesn’t show an immediate profit. That’s why there are incentives, money that helps nudge the tipping point from “would be nice” to “possible.”

The federal government gives SA Recycling a 30 percent tax credit to cover the costs of the overall system. And, in a nod to sun-powered accounting, the government also lets you accelerate depreciation of solar-energy systems. Over the next five years, Anaheim Public Utilities will give SA Recycling an estimated $1.2 million to cover as much as half of what the company spent on putting the solar panels up – based on how much sun-powered electricity SA Recycling actually makes.

“Without (incentives), a project of this size would take 20-plus years to break even,” Farano says.

“When we first started looking at it, before we realized there would be all these incentives, it did not make sense.”

Maybe the alchemy is not turning light into electricity. Maybe it’s placing a far-fetched notion well within reach of everyday people.

The solar array at SA Recycling was installed by Irvine-based DRI Energy, a roofing and construction company that started installing solar panels in 2005.

Sara Hammes, senior director of marketing at DRI, has seen interest in solar power rise dramatically in recent years. The public is more concerned about climate change, solar incentives have increased, and mandated greenhouse gas reductions have nudged utilities to pursue renewables.

DRI helps clients analyze the economic value of solar energy, how their current electrical usage compares with estimated production. For all the fancy technology, the best results start with the right roof. An unobstructed south-facing roof is ideal. And size matters too. The bigger the space, the lower the cost per solar watt.

The promise of harvesting sunlight is exciting, but even firms that want very much to be environmentally responsible still have to evaluate costs.

And those are starting to come down. A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that it cost nearly one-third less to install solar panels in 2008 than it did in 1998.

“Companies can reasonably look at an average seven-year payback,” Hammes says. “That’s not very long at all.”

And California has a bumper crop of light.

Via Orange County Register