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Senator Backs New Solar Power Initiative

by Bob Audette

BRATTLEBORO -- An idea to put 10 million solar panels on 10 million buildings in the United States is a good start, said an advocate for the replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

"It's a brilliant and visionary idea to put solar energy into the middle of the discussion on energy," said Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research. "A goal like that is very important because it will mean the solar manufacturing industry will have certainty that there will be a demand at the other end.

Makhijani was responding to a proposal put forth by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-VT, that would encourage the installation of 10 million rooftop solar units on homes and businesses over the course of 10 years.

At one kilowatt-hour a unit, that could supply up to 10,000 megawatts of energy, or approximately 13 nuclear reactors the size of the one at Vermont Yankee.

But that would be only a small step, because the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States provide the country with about 20 percent of its electricity. Most of the rest of the nation's power comes from sources such as coal and natural gas power plants and hydropower.

But according to some experts, if 70 percent of the approximately 102 million homes in the United States were equipped with solar panels they could supply 70 percent of peak U.S. energy demands during summer months, according to the Sanders press release announcing the proposed "10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2008."

"Transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels can be a tremendous boon for the United States economy and create millions of good-paying jobs," he stated.

To finance the project, the federal government would offer rebates covering up to half the cost of the systems, which cost about $20,000 each. The average rooftop installation can provide up to one-half the electricity needed to power the typical American home.

In order to qualify for the federal rebates, the homes and businesses would have to meet stringent energy efficiency standards.

"In my view, there is huge potential both in solar thermal plants in the southwestern part of this country and in photovoltaic panels in Vermont and throughout this nation in helping us become energy independent and breaking our dependence on fossil fuels," stated Sanders in his press release.

While Makhijani applauded Sanders' initiative, he said it might be best to first invest in energy efficiency prior to installing rooftop solar panels. Without improving the efficiency of household appliances and the homes themselves the nation would basically be throwing electricity away, he said.

And household rooftops arrays might not be the best way to get electricity on to the grid, said Makhijani.

"Parking lots are the answer (because) you can get it done a lot faster," he said. "The investment on the household level should be on improving efficiency."

The government might be better off spending its money on an ambitious project -- such as covering the parking lot of the Pentagon with solar panels or converting the government's fleet of vehicles to electric power -- that will attract a lot of attention and prove the viability of solar power.

But Sanders' vision for energy independence doesn't stop on America's rooftops. He would like to see a combination of "large-scale solar power generating plants in the sun-soaked southwestern United States with an aggressive program promoting private solar panels in Vermont and other states."

On Monday, Sanders toured the largest solar power facility in North America at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. On Tuesday he traveled to the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., to participate in a Senate energy committee field hearing on solar power. During the hearing, Sanders praised a project in the Mojave Desert, undertaken by a California utility, that will generate enough electricity for 400,000 homes, about the same energy output as a small nuclear power plant, like Vermont Yankee.

The hearing at Sandia focused on the potential of large-scale solar generating plants that use "concentrating solar power" such as the Nevada Solar One plant in Boulder, Nev.., which 134 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. Such solar power plants use mirrors to aim beams of sunlight toward a fluid. The liquid is heated and converted to steam that powers a turbine and generates electricity.

Photovoltaics, such as the array at Nellis Air Force Base and those proposed in the "10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2008," convert sunlight directly into electricity.

"We have optimum solar resources in the Unites States and we have to take advantage of it," stated Sanders.

Makhijani defused the debate over whether solar power could be a true source of baseload power supplying constant power when needed the most, such as is done with nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

An ambitious project such as the one suggested by Sanders with 10 million rooftops, won't be plagued by intermittency problems, he said. While solar and wind power can't supply a baseload power supply 24 hours a day, by distributing solar panels and wind turbines around the country, using energy storage systems and relying on natural-gas fired plants to meet peak demands, baseload power can be supplied without relying on nuclear energy or coal, he said.

Copyright © 2008 MediaNews Group

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