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Solar Energy has a Bright Future

The recent run-up in oil prices has increased interest in alternative energy sources, especially ones that are not subject to changing political fortunes, that are renewable, and that pollute less. VOA's Zulima Palacio reports on one source that appears endlessly renewable. If it is not, the consequences will go far beyond energy supplies. Amy Katz narrates.

The sun shines for everybody. Some days are better than others, but as long as the sun is out, solar panels work, producing electricity. Advocates of solar power say it is clean, quiet, and highly reliable.

Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Industries Association in the U.S., speaks about the future of solar. "Ten gigawatts of new solar capacity will be installed in the next decade, the equivalent of 10 nuclear power plants"

This rapid growth includes the installation of large scale "solar farms" now being built by utility companies throughout the country, as well as smaller photovoltaic panels, installed on the rooftops of houses and buildings.

John Benner, with the National Center for Photovoltaics in Denver, Colorado, says the key to solar power is increasing the efficiency of the photovoltaic cells as they turn light into energy. " A 15 percent efficiency module means that in an area of one square meter, something like that, you would be able to generate 150 watts, enough for a single light bulb in your living room. We are designing materials at the atomic levels and assembling them in a way that is able to essentially quadruple the efficiency relative to what's commercially available today."

One building in downtown Washington D.C. is the headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- an appropriate place to install panel roofs to demonstrate how solar power can be integrated with other energy sources to produce electricity.

Gary Disler, an engineer involved with the project, says of the installation, "What we have is the solar panels up on the roof and from the solar panels it comes to the main disconnect behind this thing with equipment and from there it goes into these inverters. From the inverters it goes back into a distribution panel, and from the distribution panel it goes to a meter and from the meter it goes back to a grid system for the building and puts electricity back into the building."

According to some experts the U.S. -- once the world leader -- is now lagging behind the rest of the world in the application of this technology.

But that is changing. The increasingly high prices for oil and gasoline as well as concerns about global warming are driving rapid growth of alternative sources of energy in the U.S.

Solar power is not like wind power, which requires large farms of wind turbines, says Assistant U.S. Secretary of Energy for Renewable Energy Andy Karsner.

"I anticipate that the solar market will be a distributed model, where it is about roof tops, commercial facilities roof tops, specific applications. It will be a very long time before you see large scale load generation based on photovoltaic."

According to Mr. Karsner, the huge growth in solar energy in Japan and Germany is mostly due to the extremely high subsidies given to the industry by those governments. "Solar is generally a luxury good for affluent nations paying an environmental premium."

Karsner adds that over-all growth has been slowed by a shortage of silicon, an essential ingredient of solar panels that has contributed to the relative high cost of solar power.

Government subsidies have helped to make solar power more competitive, but Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association says, eventually, solar will truly be the best form of energy.

"Solar today, with incentives provided by the federal and the states, is cost competitive. However, the question is when -- without the incentives -- solar will be cost competitive. We anticipate it will be approximately 10 years before solar is the lowest cost source of electricity."

Scientists and experts expect about a 50 percent reduction in the cost of solar energy in the next 10 years. And with other energy sources becoming more expensive, solar is shining more brightly. Builders of new houses throughout the sunny Southwestern part of the U.S. are beginning to offer solar panel roofs as an optional feature.