Solar: Powering America's Future?

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To break our addiction to foreign oil, more Americans are relying on the sun to help meet their energy needs. Thanks in part to new technology, the cost of solar power is coming down.

Arrays of photovoltaic or PV panels harness the sun's energy, converting light into electricity.

"The array just refers back to the whole layout of what's on the roof," said Amos Post, the lead installer for the Vermont-based company, groSolar. CBN News caught up with Post at the installation of solar panels on a roof of a home in Andover, Vermont.

"Business has really picked up," Post said. "We've already doubled the size of our installations right here in Vermont."

Photovoltaic Panels

Each photovoltaic panel weighs around 45 pounds and produces 190 watts of electricity. The panels convert sunlight into wattage, which is then thrown into the house to feed anything that needs energy.

"The panels themselves put out DC power," Post explained. "An inverter takes that DC power and converts it over to AC power, which will now be usable for your house."

The solar electricity system in the home in Andover is tied to the utility grid -- a give and take system, where the sun powers items like lights and appliances. If there's little or no sunlight, the utility kicks in.

"Excess power that's made during the day, which happens very frequently, goes backwards through the electric meter, making the meter spin backwards, which is very cool to watch," said groSolar's CEO Jeff Wolfe. "And that power than goes out to the utility, where you're given a credit for it. And then at night or in periods of heavy energy use, you pull that power back in."

Part of the company headquarters of groSolar is powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels.

"To me, it should be the landscape of America," said Dori Wolfe, Jeff's wife and the co-founder of groSolar, in reference to an array of solar panels. "I see it as a picture of beauty, but I'm pretty biased."

Clean Energy at Home

The Wolfes' push to use the clean energy of the sun is a lifestyle -- at work and at their Vermont home. They have large solar panels in their yard, and on their roof.

"I'm generating electricity without polluting the air," Mrs. Wolfe told CBN News. "I am using less fossil fuels, so thus generating less carbon."

The Wolfes' home also uses the sun to heat the water. They have a solar hot water system. Under a large panel on the roof is an eco-friendly mix of antifreeze and water. That mix is heated by the sun, and then transported into their home to heat the domestic water.

"That we can then use in our showers or sinks," she explained.

Wolfe says tapping into the sun is helping her family save on their utility bills.

"Absolutely," she emphasized. "On our electric bill, we're talking a connect charge of $11 a month is our goal. Our fuel bills are helped by the hot water solar."

"If we buy solar today, put it on your home, you know what your power cost is for the next 25-30 years," Wolfe explained. "And that's a great comfort. It also helps to keep people in their homes. One of the forces that's driving people out of their homes is high heating costs, high electric costs. If we can keep those costs stable, that keeps people in their homes," he continued.

Solar Power's Growth

More and more Americans are buying into solar. Although it still represents less than one percent of the energy mix in the United States, there is growth.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, grid-tied solar PV grew more than 48 percent in 2007 compared to the year before. At the end of last year, the U.S. had more than 3,400 megawatts of installed solar power. One megawatt of solar energy can power around 250 homes.

Improvements in technology and an increase in manufacturing capacity are lowering the cost of solar, making it more mainstream around the country.

"We're bringing the cost of solar down in a lot of different areas," Wolfe said. "The panel prices are coming down as we buy higher and higher volumes, and as higher volumes are manufactured. The power conversion technology is becoming very reliable and less expensive."

U.S. Government Incentives

Federal tax credits also sweeten the deal. Congress recently approved an eight-year extension on the 30 percent tax credits for home and business solar installations. In addition, lawmakers eliminated the current $2,000 cap on those credits.

The U.S. ranks fourth in the world for installed solar power -- behind Germany, Japan and Spain. Wolfe believes America will rise in the rankings in less than ten years.

"I think the industry is barely started at this point," he said. "I see the solar industry being a major employer and a major driver of the U.S. and world economy moving forward. Solar will become a double digit, greater than ten percent energy contributor to the U.S."

Environmental scientist Amy Seidl of LivingFuture Foundation in Vermont also sees tremendous potential in solar energy.

"Every day the sun's energy hitting the earth's surface creates more power than the whole world needs in a year," Seidl explained. "So the opportunity for us as inventors and people who can innovate around that resource is to come up with technologies that capture it even better than it now does."

*Originally broadcast October 29, 2008.

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.