Last year solar energy surpassed wind power as the fastest growing alternative energy source in the world. While solar products account for only a tiny fraction of the electricity produced in the United States, new federal legislation coupled with state programs are helping to promote growth in the industry.
Each year, thousands of Americans get a chance to explore energy efficient homes and buildings in hundreds of communities across the United States during the National Solar Tour.
Twenty-five years ago, Michael and Virginia Spevak built a new home on an empty lot in Washington. They wanted a house that got its energy from the sun. Mrs. Spevak says the open floor plan promotes natural heating and cooling.
"The floor is dark quarry tile, which helps the heat from the sun in the winter, and it reflects back into the house at night," she says. "The walls are light colored. which helps reflect light, so we don't need as many lights on. The windows are mostly on the south and there is a two-foot (610 millimeter) overhang so that when the sky is high in the sky in the summer the house is shaded by the overhang."
Other features include bookcases and quilts against the walls to provide added insulation. The Spevaks also have a solar water heater and they recently purchased photovoltaic panels for their roof. The house is connected to the local electric grid, but the family gets a credit from the power company for the energy they produce.
Mrs. Spevak says the house has been good to the environment and to their pocketbook. "Adding the solar voltaics probably will not make economic sense unless it is over a long period of time," she says. "The hot water clearly has paid for itself probably two or three times over by now. And, the photovoltaics we didn't really expect to get the payback, but we decided that it was worth it to decrease the carbon dioxide and all the other things that it would be worth it.
Mrs. Spevak says their commitment to energy efficiency has not meant a major change in their life-style. "You have a lot of choices when you try and have a more energy efficient house," she says. "You can have a house that does everything itself and you don't even know that you have a house any different from any other house. We decided that we didn't mind doing a few simple things, but even if we did nothing and someone moved into this house they could do nothing and it would be more energy efficient than most houses, but there are things that you can do to make it work even better."
Close to 90 visitors toured the Spevaks' home on the 2005 Solar Home Tour. Many -- drawn by rising home heating and cooling bills -- wanted to see the energy saving technologies in action. Whether they would switch to solar is another question.
"We're going to talk about it. I just have to work the numbers," says one man. Another -- who plans to adopt solar alternatives for a construction project -- says, "It is just the right thing to do." Most wanted to know what it takes to run a home on solar power. "I am just trying to take in and learn as much as I can," says one woman on the tour, who hopes someday to apply what she's learned to her own house.
While the Spevak house is the exception rather than the rule among American homes, some state and local jurisdictions offer grants and tax incentives to homeowners for the purchase of renewable or energy-efficient products. More than 20 states require utility companies to get a portion of their electricity from renewable sources.
But Peter Lowenthal says that is not enough. He heads the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, a local sponsor of the 2005 Solar Home and Building Tour. While he applauds the solar tax credit in the new energy bill, he says the law falls short of what the solar industry needs to grow a market for its products.
"Unfortunately the credit only lasts for two years," he says. "Of all the tax credits that were passed in the energy bill, unfortunately ours (the solar power industry) are short lived. So we have a significant battle to try to extend them for more than five years because for the business community to go into investing into developing the market and ramping up manufacturing and establishing dealer networks across the country is an expensive process and for a two-year window that is not a very good choice."
Mr. Lowenthal says greater price incentives and increased consumer awareness about energy-saving alternatives will help lower the nation's power bill and reduce its dependency on fossil fuels that pollute the environment.