Tumbling Cost of Solar Panels Sparks Boom in Clean Energy | WYPR

Tumbling Cost of Solar Panels Sparks Boom in Clean Energy

Nov 4, 2014

Every minute, more solar energy falls on Earth than the seven billion residents of this planet can consume in an entire year.

 The attractions of solar power have long been obvious.  But the solar industry has had its fits and starts since the 1970s. And if you listened to the Fox News coverage of the Solyndra bankruptcy a few years back, you would think that  solar energy is a failed government boondoggle.

 Well, don't listen to Fox.  Listen to Vadim Polikov, a Baltimore entrepreneur and co-founder of Astrum Solar.

 “Solar as an industry has grown faster than almost any other industry in the country," said Polikov, CEO of the Howard County-based firm. "There are more people working for solar than working within the coal industry. And it is a huge job creator.” 

At the age of 28, just six years ago, Polikov founded the solar panel installation company with two business partners in an apartment.  Now Astrum Solar has grown to 350 employees who have installed solar panels on the roofs of about 3,000 homes across 12 states.

 The company attracted a $54 million investment from a British energy firm that will allow Polikov to triple his work force again over the next year.   Astrum was purchased by Direct Energy/Centrica, but Polikov remains CEO and Astrum continues as a subsidiary of Direct Energy.

 “All the power that comes from the wind and even coal and oil at some point came from the sun," Polikov said. "What’s different now is that we can convert that solar power directly into electricity instead of having to wait billions of years for dinosaur bones to pile up and turn into oil.”

 Because of ramped-up global mass production, led by Chinese manufacturers, the price of solar panels has fallen by about two thirds over the last three years, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.  About 8,200 homes and businesses in Maryland have solar panels, up from just a few hundred eight years ago.

 "Now the economics of solar are working," said Marta Tomic, Clean Energy Program Manager at the Maryland Energy Administration.   "You've got folks who care about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint, and now we’re at the point where it actually makes financial sense to get these things installed."

 Solar still produces a fraction of one percent of the electricity supply in the U.S. and around the world.  But the International Energy Agency recently released a report that predicts solar could be the world’s largest source of electricity within less than four decades, ahead of coal, natural gas, wind, and nuclear.

 "It’s really been a whirlwind of growth for the industry," said Laura Wisland, Energy Analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Since 2008, the market for rooftop photovoltaic panels has been growing by at least 50 percent per  year."

 Here’s the financial nitty-gritty for an average homeowner.  An array of solar panels for an average home costs about $20,000. But because of federal tax credits, $1,000 state grants from Maryland, laws that require power companies to buy energy from solar producers, and popular new leasing deals and long-term loans, homeowners do not have to put any money down to get solar panels. The homeowners' monthly payments for the solar panels are about the same -- and sometimes lower -- than the amount they save on their electric bills.

 For example, Howard County computer programmer Ron De Los saw his monthly electric bills drop from $200 per month to $100 monthly when he installed solar panels on his house.  And that $100 saved is exactly what his monthly payment is for his solar panels.  In 12 years, his loan will be paid off – and his total monthly bills will drop by half.

 “We are just kind of waiting to get the savings going,' said De Los.  "Right now, we’re breaking even, which is good – we’re not spending more, not spending less.  And we’re being good to the environment at the same time.”

 What's remarkable is the electricity meter on Ron’s home. The meter runs forward at night, when he buys electricity from a utility company, and backward in the daytime, when he sells his solar power to the grid.

 It is the sign of a revolution that could soon have most homes acting as their own self-sufficient, pollution-free power plants.