Analysts express rays of hope for solar power

The dream of the most optimistic solar power advocates soon will be reality, analysts said Thursday.

Within five or 10 years, residents may be able to generate electricity from rooftop solar panels for about the same price as retail electricity from utilities, analysts told about 60 energy industry professionals at a Law Seminars International conference at Alexis Park.

The cost of power from solar panels is declining, and the cost of power from electric utilities is rising, said Rick Gilliam, managing director of Western states policy for SunPower Corp., a solar-panel manufacturing company based in San Jose, Calif.

"At some point, these two prices will cross (on the graph)," Gilliam said.

Gilliam predicted that the price of homemade solar power and electric utility power will be the same within a decade.

He referred to solar photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. NV Energy customers with solar panels typically are connected to the grid and get credit for excess power they feed back into the grid.

Residents and businesses with solar panels still need to draw power from the electric utility when the sun isn’t shining, such as at night, but analysts wondered how rates should be structured for these part-time utility power customers.

Electric utilities need to be compensated for money spent on operations and maintenance, distribution lines and other facilities, but the utilities would get much less revenue from customers with solar panels, said energy attorney Fred Schmidt, a former Nevada consumer advocate.

When a substantial number of customers are relying only on the utility for backup power, other customers would be paying higher rates that subsidize the solar power customers, Schmidt said.

If electric utilities boosted the fixed monthly charge, customers would protest, Schmidt said.

"I know that customers don’t like that fixed charge," he said.

Gilliam contended that customers with solar panels offset those expenses because they generate power when the sun is shining and electricity use drives power prices to peak levels. Yet, customers with solar power only get paid for the average cost of power, Gilliam said.

SunPower Vice President Julie Blunden said the number of customers getting power from the sun would be troublesome only if it exceeded 75 percent, and she doubted solar panel installations would get that high.

Blunden noted a surge in demand for solar power panels in California, with 19,000 applications received under the state’s solar initiative in the last two years. That represents a total investment of $5 billion.

Solar panels capable of generating 475 million watts of electricity are connected to the grid in the United States, and 329 million watts of the total comes from California, according to the Database State Incentives for Renewables and Electricity.

About 2.5 percent of the country’s power comes from renewable energy, including solar power but excluding hydroelectric power, Schmidt said.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.

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