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High Noon for solar: a twist on the spaghetti western

You know what fries my bacon? In 2011, Germany installed more solar power in one year than Americans have in fifty. If it were just the industrious Germans I could probably handle it. But the laid-back, Fiat-driving Italians did the same thing. The Italians! .

The technology was invented at Bell Labs in the ‘50s, when Eisenhower was president. Solar photovoltaics is as American as the hot dog, but our country has never mounted a sustained effort to commercialize it. It’s as if Steve Jobs invented a cool phone, then put it on a dusty shelf for fifty years.

Thanks to NASA, we know that solar is the best way to power a satellite. It’s great for ocean buoys and highway signs and off-grid cabins. But unlike wind energy, which today provides ten percent of Texan’s electricity, solar has yet to achieve one percent in any state.

So here’s the question: Is solar just a cute diversion, like having a llama carry your backpack, or does it have the oomph to make a serious dent in the energy appetite of a populous country? Is it a toy or a tool? A llama or a mule?

The world may have learned the answer on a sunny weekend this May, when tens of thousands of solar installations on rooftops, factories, churches, and farm fields in Germany produced 22 gigawatts of electricity.

That’s a stunning amount of power, equal to that provided by 20 large nuclear or coal plants, as much power as takes to run the Rockies. For four hours at midday, solar provided nearly half the electricity consumed in Mercedesville.

The solar storm sweeping Europe has been driven by innovative policies that guarantee solar owners twenty years of lucrative payments. In America, we’ve always been told “keep your hands off that power line.” In Europe, goverments encouraged their citizens to become producers, to “withdraw your money from the bank and redeploy it on your roof.” And so they did, to the tune of $150 billion, a fistful of Euros.

Critics call these policies expensive, unwarranted, and unwise, but most Germans and Italians view them as strategic investments. Solar is on a moonshot. Last year, Italy installed more every few months than California has in fifty years. Homeowners, church congregrations, retirees, businessmen… anyone can play, and many have. Farmers have been particularly keen. Why grow hay, when solar is ten or twenty times more lucrative?

This boom has been all the more remarkable because tans are rare and clouds are common in northern Europe. In contrast, a typical roof in the Rockies receives a deluge of sunlight, often exceeding 100 horsepower at high noon. Until recently little was captured for good use. We’ve damned all our rivers, but never considered our roofs.

It’s not that Americans don’t like solar. On the contrary, it appeals to veterans, vegans, rednecks, techno-geeks, enviros, survivalists, and hedge fund managers. But until recently, we haven’t had much use for it, because it was too pricey.

But costs have plunged. A system that once was $20,000, now sells for $8,000. Numerous companies will lease them to you, no money down, lower bills from day one. Unlike cars, which always need attention, solar has no moving parts. This is smokeless fire, as free of trouble as of carbon. It’s a sexy technology, worth marrying.

And it’s getting a new look. Kit Carson Electric recently dedicated a 1.5 Megawatt system near Taos that will help power 30,000 homes. San Miguel Power Association is building a $4 million system of similar size to serve Telluride. In the last decade, Holy Cross Energy customers have installed $30 million worth in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys.

Here in the Rockies, solar remains twice the price of wholesale power, but for retail customers generating your own is both a profitable and thought-provoking proposition.

Someone once said that energy is the original currency. If so, what is money? The dollar is supposed to be a store of value, but as Yogi Berra once said, “a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

Experts keep telling me inflation is low. But why is gold $1,600 an ounce, and a loaf of bread as expensive as a gallon of gas? Could it have anything to do with the way politicians are printing money, $5 trillion worth of new debt since 2008?

I’m not sure. But I’ve run the numbers and they suggest a solar electric system could pay me 5% for decades to come. No, the sun doesn’t shine at night, but it comes up fairly reliably every morning. Maybe this could be a good partnership, the sun and I.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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