Are Solar Technologies Viable in Northerly, Cooler Climates?

I live in southwest Michigan and am interested in PV solar and solar water heating. But considering the sun only shines practically half of the year in this northerly state, how viable are either option for me as a homeowner. Should I look into wind power instead? Doug S, Battle Creek, MI

Doug, — There is an erroneous view that solar energy only works in the so-called sunbelt states, like Arizona and Florida. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, hundreds of thousands of solar electric and thermal systems are installed in the North Central and New England States in the USA and Canada. Tom Stanton, Coordinator, Michigan Renewable Energy Program, Michigan Public Service Commission staff, states, “In truth, a carefully designed solar energy system for space or water heating will often pay for itself through energy cost savings faster in a colder, cloudier, northern climate because there is a need for so much more heat. And, some solar electric (photovoltaic) devices have been designed specifically to work in cloudier, higher-latitude environments. Again, depending on details of each installation and the competing rates for utilities or portable fuels, solar electric systems can be very advantageous in colder climates, like Michigan’s.” Bill Guiney, Manager of Water Heating Division of Solargenix Energy (who’s manufacturing plant is located in Chicago) states, “A typical 80-gallon, family of four solar domestic hot water system at $4800 installed can have a return on investment (ROI) and an internal rate of return (IRR) of 15.5% and positive cash flow in 8-years (electric at $0.11/kWh) and 11.8% ROI and 10.5-years (NG @ %1.50/therm) – these calculations include the 30% federal tax credit but does not include any additional State incentives.” According to Dr. Subhendu Guha, President of United Solar Ovonic, a photovoltaics manufacturer in Michigan, “a key to the success of USO is its unique technology which permits the modules to produce power even in overcast and snowy conditions. Under the relatively low-light wintertime conditions in Northern states such as Michigan. independent tests show that the UNI-SOLAR triple junction modules produce more electricity per rated power than products made with conventional technology.” Small wind systems can add an extra measure of security (and economics) either alone or as a hybrid with a photovoltaics/battery system, according to Andy Kruse, Vice President of Southwest Windpower. Brandon Leavitt, Solar Service Inc., a long time Chicago-based solar installer states, “Solar Hot Water systems make sense anywhere the shines at least 5 or 6 hours a day at least two-thirds of the year. In Chicago, 4 hours of sun will heat 80 gallons of water from 50 to 120 degrees. Two 4′ x 8′ panels are all we need. The further north you go, one can add additional square feet of collector area to compensate for any less solar exposure. Many folks confuse outdoor temperature with panel performance. Here in Chicago, on a twenty-degree day we can easily heat water to 160 degrees or more. The colder the day, the clearer the sky”. Aside from Canada, ambitious solar thermal and electric programs in England and Germany also prove, that solar works anywhere there is sunshine. David Renne of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculates, “the annual average solar resource in Miami (FL) is 4.8 kw-h/m2/day, and in Muskegon (MI) is 3.8 kwh-m2-day. Thus, to get the same energy from a rooftop in Muskegon, you would need approximately 25% larger solar panel (or, 250 m2 rather than 200 m2). This would be for the annual average, at latitude tilt. There are no technical barriers, and high electric and natural gas rates coupled with lower reliability in Northern States make the solar thermal and electric options quite viable. As always, make sure you select an experienced installer who offers SRCC-rated solar thermal systems and UL-rated components for solar electric (photovoltaics) systems, and have the prerequisite local or national training. Scott

Author

  • Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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