Rays of Progress

Companies making solar energy more accessible
Did You Know? Florida is the second-largest producer of electricity after Texas, and its tourism contributes to the third-highest demand for gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Photo by Pixelci / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Al Simpler has helped make solar systems a reality for thousands of people in nearly 75 countries.

Most people in the Sunshine State have a rough understanding of the concept of solar — using the sun’s energy to power lights, fans, small appliances and perhaps even an entire home — but many of Simpler’s most rewarding memories have been

helping those in need who have no idea the power that the sun offers.

“I will tell you the most wrenching sort of feeling about what you’re doing really comes when you’re out of the country and you’re doing something that’s never been done before in that village,” Simpler said. “And they all stand at it and look at it and say, ‘My God. What is that? It’s magic.’ You’re making electricity from the sun.”

Making electricity from the sun isn’t anything new. Solar panels were first developed in the 1950s, and through the decades they evolved from heating pools to wider use.

Just 1.18 percent of the Sunshine State’s electricity usage comes from solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But solar is increasing in popularity locally as people look to go green or have the desire to eliminate part or all of their electric bill.

Tallahassee’s solar farm, which is located on Tallahassee International Airport property, offers a locked-in rate for the next 20 years.

It was met with a warm reception from customers, and city officials boast construction of a second solar farm on the property.

The cost of using solar has come down dramatically, with panels, mounts and installation running about $18,000-$20,000 for a medium-sized home (this estimate is after a 30 percent federal income tax reduction).

The City of Tallahassee is among many municipalities that offer low-interest loans to residents looking for financing of solar panel installation.

While the up-front costs are substantial, solar-estimate.org calculates that the average payback time is just under 10 years and that panels can deliver more than $49,000 in savings over the course of their lifetime.

Simpler and Matthew Chentnik from Independent Green Technologies recommend taking satellite images of the property and evaluating if there is good exposure to the sun and a recommendation can me made on whether to install panels on a roof

or on the ground.

They would evaluate a year’s worth of power bills and then model a system that could meet the needs of a family or business.

“We can then examine how to get a 100 percent offset,” Chentnik said. “Or you can knock out 10 percent, 20 percent or 50 percent of your bill.”

Some local residents have also begun to look into solar because of outages due to thunderstorms or hurricanes.

While portable generators are often a lower-cost option, they require more frequent maintenance and the availability of gas is a concern.

Once installed, solar panels are as reliable as, well, the sun rising each morning.

“No maintenance, no lubrication,” Chentnik said. “They just sit up there silently making electricity all day long.”

If going solar sounds appealing but the price is outside the budget, a national company, Goal Zero, offers a solution for emergencies: a solar panel paired with a battery generator.

Goal Zero offers its Yeti portable power stations (ranging from $199 to $2,995) that can connect to its Boulder solar panels (starting at about $150).

When the electricity cuts out, the Goal Zero products will let you charge phones, tablets and some small appliances, with larger models able to power a mini fridge.

“We’d recommend a Yeti 1000 paired with a Boulder 100-watt panel,” Goal Zero’s Cameron Eastman said.

“We choose the 100-watt panel because it will fully charge the 1000-watt battery in 15-20 hours of direct sunlight.”

Categories: Ideas