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The Earth has a fever. And as humans continue to dump billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, primarily through the gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, its temperature continues to rise. It's a scientific fact: Global warming is a reality, and we, as energy consumers, are at least in part to blame.

Fortunately, there's a simple cure to this smog-induced malady: solar power. Photovoltaics--the solar cells that convert sunlight into "clean" electricity--have been used with considerable success to power everything from watches and calculators to cars and satellites. According to the Worldwatch Institute, solar power is now the planet's fastest-growing energy source. The sale of photovoltaics expanded more than 40 percent in 1997, and the solar-energy industry as a whole has grown at an annual rate of 16 percent since 1990. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) reports that nearly 250,000 families in the developing world have turned to household-scale photovoltaic systems for power; and larger-scale photovoltaic or solar-wind hybrid systems are being installed in remote villages worldwide as a cost-effective--and pollution-free--solution to power needs.

According to Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, 70 percent of the photovoltaic cells produced in the United States are shipped overseas, primarily to energy-deprived third-world countries. "Two billion people in the developing world don't have electricity," explains Sklar. "Another billion get electricity less than 10 hours a day, usually when they don't want it. That's been our market."

A Level Playing Field

But that doesn't mean solar energy has failed here in the U.S. As the nation's electric utilities become deregulated, allowing open competition between power suppliers where once-regulated monopolies ruled the playing field, more and more people are turning to the sun for their power needs. In addition, a Clinton administration initiative aims to have photovoltaic systems installed on one million rooftops by 2010. The program's tax credits and other incentives will encourage private energy companies, as well as state and local governments, to invest in solar technology.

Ron Sundergill, an energy and transportation expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, points out that federal funds for solar research and development are necessary if solar energy is to become economically attractive to those who could just as easily hook up to the conventional grid. "The industrial process is still rather costly," says Sundergill. "If you don't have sufficient money flowing into the industry, it's going to be a long time before solar energy becomes competitive on a wide scale."

Ultimately, says ASES spokesperson Susan LeFever, whether solar electricity succeeds down the line is up to consumers. "One of the downsides is the cost," says LeFever, "but the more you buy, the more cells they make and the cheaper they become." Currently the going rate for a photovoltaic panel is between $3.50 and $5 per watt--too high to compete with cheaper conventional electricity rates, but far better than the nearly $100-per-watt rate of the late 1970s and early '80s. "If the price gets down to $1 a watt, which won't be too far away, solar power will be cheaper than buying electricity on the grid," he says.

Until then, says LeFever, homeowners can expect to spend about $25,000 to completely solarize an average home. That's expensive, but LeFever puts it in perspective: "How many people go out and spend $25,000 on a new car? And every month you have to add oil and gas to maintain it. With solar, the maintenance is very low and you're saving money on the utility bill." And, in the long run, the buyer is paid back.

Those ready for such an investment would do well to consult the Solar Living Sourcebook.

Solar Gadgets

As the 20th century nears its end, some people are preparing for what they fear will be a total power-grid meltdown. Could solar energy--whether provided en masse via photovoltaic shingles or in small doses through individually powered products--serve as a safety net? "I don't know what's going to happen, but something is," says AAA Solar owner Jeff Schmitt. "And you can hedge your bets with solar."

Article originally published in E/The Environmental Magazine
By Chris Hayhurst


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