Have You Heard About the Big Surprises in Solar Energy?

You usually don’t see them as you drive up to park in front of a big-box store, but solar panels are likely to cover the roof overhead. There are few Wal-Marts, Ikeas, Costcos, Apple stores, Google buildings, Verizon data centers and huge FedEx distribution centers that do not have solar on the roof to cover their energy usage.

Now it’s spreading to full-scale industrial roofs as well, with the likes of Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford, Intel, Owens Corning and Johnson & Johnson getting on the clean energy bandwagon. Why? Because the cost of solar now beats the cost of conventional electricity in most places in the United States.

The big surprise is that if solar ends up on most commercial rooftops, it won’t add up to a small percentage of electrical needs in the country; it will provide nearly half the nation’s entire electrical demand.

But the big surprise in solar energy is not that it makes financial sense or that it’s the right thing to do for your children (forget global warming — the emissions from a coal-fired power plant can kill them). The big surprise is that if solar ends up on most commercial rooftops, it won’t add up to a small percentage of electrical needs in the country; it will provide nearly half the nation’s entire electrical demand.

The federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has just published a report saying that about 40% of the nation’s power could come from solar panels placed on rooftops, but that assumes relatively low-efficiency panels producing 16% efficiency. Many panels installed today can produce 25% efficiencies.

During a three-year period, the lab used geographic information systems and Lidar, a sophisticated laser-illuminating range finding technology, to measure the rooftop space across 128 American cities to find square footage that might be used for solar panels. It concluded that photovoltaic solar panels could produce 1,118 gigawatts, or 1,432 terawatt-hours, of annual energy generation, about 40% of the nation’s electricity sales.

The estimate far exceeds a previous survey published by the lab that estimated 664 gigawatts could be installed. The new estimate takes into account more buildings that are suitable for solar, higher module power density and more buildings.

The study shows that although 83% of small buildings in the United States are suitably located for solar power, only 26% of the rooftop space would be useful.

There are a lot of surprises in the report for cities that might not consider themselves good candidates for rooftop solar. Buffalo, for example, got one of the highest marks for solar, with 68% of its roofs in the right place and available to make use of panels. Concord, N.H., even beat Buffalo, at 72%. That’s partly because those two cities in the snow belt tend to have sloped-roof buildings, which are far better at receiving solar rays than more modern flat-roofed buildings, where panels must be angled to the sun on special frames.

The study pointed out that although California came in No. 1 in potential generation because 74% of the state’s needs could be met with rooftop solar, many states in New England and the Midwest, not to mention Florida and Texas, could easily meet more than half their electrical demand with solar panels.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. To read more in-depth articles on the prospects for success for solar energy as well as other cutting-edge technology updates and how you can benefit from owning the hidden companies driving the biggest advances in high-tech right now, click here to subscribe to Breakthrough Technology Alert written by Stephen Petranek.

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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