My turn: Harnessing power from midnight sun

Posted: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Of the solutions to the "energy cost crisis," solar power for Alaskan homes and businesses may be the best long-term choice. Solar power can cut Alaskans' heat and light bills in half.

Standard Renewable Energy defines how simply solar power works:

"Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are mounted on your roof, where they collect energy from the sun in the form of direct current electricity.

The direct current electricity is then converted by an inverter into alternating current electricity for use by your home.

"The alternating current electricity is fed directly into your home, just like it is from your electricity provider. And since the solar energy system works in tandem with your electricity provider, you'll continue to get electricity from them when you need more than the solar energy system can provide (e.g. during overcast weather and at night)."

"Solar power should harness the midnight sun. In other states, homes are tied into the power grid, produce solar power and sell it to the utilities. Would you love to sell power to your electric company? Maybe debit them $3.50 each time for the privilege of paying you? With solar power, each Alaskan can bring their own energy costs down. It's got to be part of any Alaska energy solution.

Power grids work when homeowners and businesses feed their excess power into the utility. The utility passes that power along to its other clients instead of producing its own. That reduces consumption of expensive oil and gas. Utilities that bill on a level pay plan give credits to their solar producers during the summer months that balance out the consumers increased cost and lower generation in winter. It can drastically reduce annual energy costs.

Hot air furnaces, boilers, hot water heaters, even refrigeration and irrigation systems run on solar power. By generating electricity and heat, these systems can provide regional self-sufficiency to Alaskans, regardless of the community in which we live. It's kind of like the State's Power Cost Equalization program on steroids.

One of the biggest players in solar power is, surprisingly, BP. BP's solar expert Tim Burton states, "It's inescapable that solar power will become a mainstream energy source." That's from one of Alaska's top producers of oil and soon, natural gas.

Home solar panel systems are guaranteed by manufacturers to operate for 25 years. If solar cuts electricity costs in half for each of those 25 years, it's quite a bargain. As the price of oil and gas go up, savings only increases.

Other states like Colorado are changing consumers' energy consumption by providing incentives. Grants provided to homeowners and businesses sufficient to bring down the capital cost of installing solar energy systems can drop our electrical generation costs in half in every region of Alaska. Such grants could solve each Alaskans' personal energy crisis.

If you have a newer watch or calculator, you're using solar power today. Solar works cost effectively when states make the investment to offset the capital cost of acquisition and installation. Currently, installation credits, grants and low interest loans are not available in Alaska for solar power. The federal government, however, provides a 30 percent investment credit for solar power and allows accelerated depreciation for businesses that install it. It's time for Alaska to get some skin in the solar game.

The Legislature has a unique opportunity, awash as we are with oil dollars, to help Alaskans change our heating and electricity sources and reduce costs during this Special "energy" Session. Redirecting oil riches to allow renewable energy from the sun makes incredible sense.

Cash infusions to Alaskans are important to help with short-term, high-energy costs. But let's also fund utilities to pass through grants for solar power systems that hook up to their grid. Solar power, wind generation and geothermal must have a place at the table alongside oil, gas, coal and hydro generated energy. They are all part of developing a solid energy solution for Alaska. The alternatives to hydrocarbons could prove to be the best long-term solutions to Alaskans' energy cost crisis.

• Jim Crawford is a life-long, third generation Alaskan, a commercial real estate developer and mortgage banker. He and his wife, Terri, live in west Anchorage.

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