CN Jan 25 2018

About a third of a million Americans work today in the solar energy field. They’re making solar panels, wire, inverters, conduits, roof support racks and hundreds of other products. They’re working in offices designing custom installations, since every roof is different. They’re climbing up on those roofs carrying heavy equipment and bolting it down against windstorms and heavy snows. And most of them are making good money.

At at time when the conventional wisdom was that everyone had to go to law school or get an MBA, an entire generation of clever, handy people works in an industry that’s actually improving the earth’s environment.

The big driver in this suddenly-booming business? Solar panels that cost a tiny fraction of what earlier versions cost only a couple of years ago.

Our guest this week works at such a company. Lisa Albrecht is a board member of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. But she also works at Solar Solutions in Niles, where they’ve been installing solar systems for forty years. But these new efficient panels are game changers, she tells us. ComEd charges roughly 10 to 11cents per kilowatt hour, but the arrays she’s putting on roofs today are really turning the financial equation upside-down.

“If I look at the amount of energy that they are going to produce over 25 years they actually end up paying about six to seven cents per kilowatt hour installed,” she tells us, “So less than the utility charges you today. And you don’t have inflation costs on top of that, never raising costs…So, you have a fixed rate of energy on your roof for the next 30 years. And I can say that because the manufacturer warranty on that product is 25 years.”

The reason we’re talking today is that the Trump Administration announced  few days ago that it would be imposing 30% tariffs on all the solar panels made outside the U.S., ostensibly to save American Jobs. But only a few thousand of those hundreds of thousands mentioned earlier actually work in American panel manufacturing plants. The real jobs, and the real growth, is in installing, and applying, that technology to buildings and vacant land parcels. And Albrecht says the tariff will hurt, but it won’t be a fatal blow.

“I saw a lot of sensationalism on the news, people were panicking,” she tells us. “I don’t think it’s going to kill the industry. It’s going to slow things down a little bit. People were buying solar panels three years ago, two years ago. Basically, it’s putting us back there in terms of price, but the prices will continue to come down. We get more efficiencies all the time.”

The industry is growing so quickly that it’s attracting all kinds of innovation, so that more efficient forms of solar collection methods could completely revolutionize the business again and again.

“I think not only more efficient, but I think they will also probably look different and how they are applied will be different,” she enthuses. “I mean there is research right now that for example spray-paints that create energy. Tesla has the whole solar roof. There’s a see-through window basically piece of photo-voltaic that, just imagine, like the Sears Tower actually  has some experimental windows that include that also. If you start really to look at what surfaces in society see the sun and can those produce electricity, it gets really exciting.”

Albrecht tells us that her company, before the tariffs, was able to install solar on a typical bungalow for about ten thousand dollars.  “So, if I’m using a 300-watt panel, let’s say I do 20 of them, I’m going to get about a 6-kilowatt system and that’s going to be somewhere around $20,000 before incentives. Now there’s a 30% federal tax credit and the State of Illinois also has some separate incentives, so that brings that cost down to less than $10,000.

“And so it will be a 30% tax just on the solar panels themselves,” she continues, ” so the solar panels are just a portion of the total cost of the installation. Whether it’s on a rooftop or whether it’s in a huge solar field with thousands of panels, this is a portion of that piece, so for residential we’re looking at maybe a 10% increase in costs.”.

That 10% increase probably won’t scare off too many customers, she says, but federal threats to eliminate the tax credits would be another matter entirely.

But the industry isn’t going away, she insists, because “There’s more people employed in the solar industry than in coal, oil, and gas combined. And people don’t realize that that’s how large solar is. I think a lot of people just assume that it still is a niche. It is no longer a niche; it is a mainstream.”

And for Chicagoans accustomed to the ways of City Hall, here’s a shocker: Albrecht says the City bureaucracy has actually embraced solar rooftops on houses. “I started personally going down to the Building Department,” she smiles. “I had permits that took over a year to pull. And the City recognized that that was a problem, so they actually received a grant from the Department of Energy, it’s called a SunShot Grant, and to pull a solar permit today on a standard residential house takes me one day.”

Although Lisa Albrecht lives very much in the practical world, she enjoys thinking about the future that solar energy can bring.

“In reality,” she begins, “for just one hour of sunshine that strikes the surface of the earth we have enough electricity if we turned that sunshine into electricity to power all of humanity for an entire year. One hour, one day, a whole year. So, even decades ago Buckminster Fuller was looking at this and he was like, well, what if electricity just followed the sun and we just kept the transmission flowing?”

A kind of global collection grid that could send the energy to the dark hemisphere?

“Exactly,” she replies. “And we could put solar panels around the equator. There’s many solutions if we are just committed to finding them, and that’s before we even add in wind or hydro or many of the other claimed technologies. We don’t necessarily need nuclear. We don’t need coal. We don’t need natural gas. I see those as transitional fuels, you know, which I’m sure they would not like to be considered a transition fuel, but really their days are over.

And, she concludes, “My vision is that we will never build a house without solar. It doesn’t make sense.”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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