Eginhard Muth: Be proactive about solar energy


Published: Monday, January 28, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 5:23 p.m.

We need better incentives to encourage residents to install grid-connected, photovoltaic solar power systems.

Photovoltaic means that DC power is generated in solar cells exposed to the sun's rays. That power is stored in batteries and then converted to household AC voltage by solid state inverters (no moving parts).

Grid-connected means that the power company, in our case GRU, supplies power to you if you are not generating enough, but also buys back power from you if you generate more than you consume.

Here is what surprised me. Germany, where clouds cover the skies for about two-thirds of all daylight hours, has become the world's leading solar power generator. It generates 55 percent of the world's photovoltaic power. In 2005 the rural town of Buerstadt, with 16,000 inhabitants, installed a 5 MW solar system on the 47,000 square foot flat roof of an industrial building. This means 312 KW per inhabitant, so there is a lot of excess energy fed back into the grid.

At this time the 12 MW solar park Gut Erlasse, completed in 2006, is the world's largest solar PV system. As of the end of 2006 the total installed grid-connected solar power was 3,031 MW in Germany and 1,419 MW in Japan. The U.S. comes in third place with a measly 340 MW.

This comparison becomes ridiculous when based on installed power per capita, because the population of the U.S. is about 3.5 times that of Germany.

What is the reason for this success story? The U.S. possesses the best solar resources in the world, and yet Germany has installed 9 times as much photovoltaic as the U.S. because their government has legislated generous incentives that stimulate installation of solar energy.

The "feed in law" passed by the German Federal Government in 2004, requires power companies to buy back power for 20 years at about triple market rates. This gives an incentive to communities and individuals to invest in power generation.

I do not expect the governments of the U.S. or Florida to pass any laws like that. But we should be proactive locally, in Gainesville and Alachua County, to put us on the map as a leader in solar energy. I believe it is important for GRU to give better incentives.

Looking at GRU's website, I see that GRU will pay customers 5.5 cents/kWh for energy fed back. According to my last bill, I am paying GRU 10.6 cents/kWh. That is clearly not an adequate incentive for the much needed investment by businesses and homeowners.

After all, GRU is faced with a decision about a new 100 MW power plant. What if they had stimulated private initiative in the past? I think it is not too late, but they need to act fast.

Looking at an article with the aerial view of Butler Plaza in the Dec. 11 Sun, I see all these immense flat roofs just begging for solar panels. The article talks about doubling the size of Butler Plaza. What about building permits for new commercial buildings? I think the city and county should require self-sufficient rooftop solar systems on all new commercial buildings as part of their building code.

What about our Home Builders Association? I think they should actively advocate solar energy self-sufficient homes, and at least have one such home in each of their Parade of Homes shows, but the more the better.

What about the role of UF? I remember the prominent Solar Center under Eric Farber in Mechanical Engineering. But now I see that the University of Central Florida is home to the Florida Solar Energy Center.

Since GRU is owned by the city of Gainesville, our City Commission is the board of directors for GRU. I hope commissioners will make the push for privately owned solar systems a major factor in their decision.

Eginhard Muth is a professor emeritus of industrial engineering at the University of Florida. Previously he worked as a design engineer of hydroelectric generators with the General Electric Company.

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