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Ellie Kinnaird: What going solar will take

February 7, 2014 

We can do it without natural gas – and oil and coal – or with lots less. But not without political commitment.

If every sunny rooftop – homes, shops and restaurants, commercial and industrial buildings – installed solar for hot water or electricity, we could do it.

Just last month, UNC announced a breakthrough on storing solar energy. Even animal solar tracking devices exist. While solar couldn’t run industry, it could run minor uses in a plant.

Solar industry is one of the fastest growing in the state, with the cost almost competitive with fossil fuels. Skeptics say that solar wouldn’t be able to exist without subsidies, but fossil fuels are just as heavily subsidized and have been for years.

The utilities are not going to let it happen without a fight and laws across the country will have to be changed, along with the culture. In many offices, lights are left on all night where motion sensors could be installed. Or janitors could turn out the lights when they are done cleaning. It all adds up. Studies have found that even removing lights in vending machines saves electricity.

Little by little, it is happening and some day a major shift will occur and the utilities will have to reckon with it. Already, U.S. home electric use has fallen to levels of over a decade ago. Weatherized buildings, appliance efficiency, and fluorescent lights have cut energy use drastically. LED lights will cut it even more. Manufacturers and office complexes are installing energy control devices that can save millions.

Major companies such as Seimans have developed the field to a science. Companies are looking for ways to both save energy costs and do good. Google, which is a huge consumer of energy, is exploring hog waste and investing heavily in solar. Facebook is doing the same. I-40 rest stops in Johnston County feature LED and new solar hot water systems. Edwards Air Force Base is installing a 200 kilowatt solar system from Semprius, a Durham company. Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Raleigh are exploring solar projects for homes using third-party vendors. And materials technology, such as perovskite, is changing rapidly, bringing the price down even more. Distributive solar, not solar farms, which use up too much valuable land, is the best solution. Some 350 million Chinese have roof-top solar hot water heaters.

As these solar and energy-saving devices begin to reduce energy use, the utilities will have to change. When I was on the Energy Policy Council, we discussed decoupling, which pays utilities the difference between the loss of their revenue, and thus profits, because utilities lose money when less energy is used..

Distributive solar generation has the added advantage of not needing transmission lines, which lose 7 percent loss of energy by one conservative estimate. And a big plus for no transmission lines, is that when that hurricane or ice storm roars in, it won’t affect the solar panels that will start working as soon as the storm passes and the sun comes out.

While natural gas is seen as the savior to release us from foreign oil suppliers, it has many problems, not the least of which is protests from adjoining land owners concerned over water safety and road damage.

Some North Carolina legislators threatened last session to repeal the 7.5 percent alternative fuels requirement for utilities. That sponsor, a former Duke Energy engineer, has announced he will try again.

Yes, industry and vehicles may always need fossil fuels, but if we do it right, not that much. And, the robins are back – looking for worms in my back yard. So there is hope.

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