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The Five Takeaways of Solar Power: Ian Howard

Ian Howard is someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Before dabbling in solar power, Howard was a paratrooper, then a mountain guide, then a builder of IT infrastructure in Africa.  So, how exactly did he get into solar power?

“I had been interested in renewable energy since I was very young.  Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was, of course, interested in the environment and the outdoors.  However, solar in particular, I became particularly interested in solar while working in Africa, where  we used it to bring telecommunications to rural areas. Solar was a way for us to bring these technologies without burdening these communities with the cost of fuel for generators.”

Solar power is seen to be one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, the latter of which has caused much of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  While in the past, solar power was expensive and ineffective, over the past couple of years solar technology has become cost effective and efficient.

Howard now does consulting and as a partner with a solar start-up called Power Panel.  Below he provides his five takeaways of solar power. 

1.  The speed at which solar technology is developing is comparable to that of the microchip.

People often forget that solar technology is just that – technology.

“The most common misconception about solar that I encounter has to do with dated information. Solar is progressing at such a fast speed that the two year old information that is the basis of most preconceptions is really off the mark. Solar is changing almost as fast as microchips, and this is creating opportunities that are smashing down walls decades earlier than anticipated,” says Howard.

2.  Solar energy is a good defensive measure against unpredictable weather and high energy costs.

Solar energy was once the domain of off-grid, patchouli scented hippies.  It turns out, however, that solar power has greater application than most people think.  With the upgrade of electrical networks to “smart grids”, whereby power is distributed and two-way digital technology is used to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers and vice versa, it could potentially be a way to pay very little for electricity.

“With only a few square meters of collectors on a roof, all of the hot water for a home can be heated by the sun. This equipment costs little more than most home entertainment systems, and provides sustainable energy for more than a decade.  It also provides some insurance against those few but painful occasions when the gas, or electric grids go down. I find it astonishing that people in Ontario who endured the ice storm years ago are not convinced of the need for greater resilience and autonomy in our systems,” exclaims Howard.

As it turns out, solar power is good for the environment, wallet, and self sufficiency.  Perhaps the hippies were on to something.

 

3.  Solar power works in cold climates.

When one sees stock photos of solar panels and solar power, they always seem to contain an array of panels in the middle of a desert.  Should people in cold climates, such as Canada, be using solar power?

“It is another misconception that colder climates are less suitable for solar. Cold is not the issue, but rather sunlight. The further from the equator one goes the less light there is in winter, but photovoltaics perform better when they are cool and the heat generated by solar thermal becomes yet more useful. In fact, the best places on earth for solar are in mountain areas, like in Northern Chile which have low temperatures but plenty of sunlight,” Howard explains.

How about solar panels getting covered in snow?  Wouldn’t that render solar power pointless in cold climates?

“Snow, of course, can block sunlight from getting to the panels. Typically panels are installed on an angle so snow can slide off the glass most of the time. For those cases where this doesn’t happen, there are a few innovations which allow the panel to be heated, melting snow and ice off their surface,” he says.

 

4.  Although solar is “clean” energy, making panels is quite resource intensive – however, over the life time of the panel, less resources are needed than fossil fuels.

In the creation of new technologies, a shift occurs in resource demand.  For example, with the increase in need for long-term energy storage, the amount of lithium-ion batteries needed is increasing.  As a result, the demand for lithium is also increasing.  Similarly, with the manufacture of solar panels, there will be a need for resources such as silicon, cadmium telluride, plastic, and copper-indium selenide.

“Solar does require materials, so using no energy will always be more environmentally friendly than using solar. Where solar excels, however, is in producing power where it is consumed. This obviates the need to build infrastructure to transport energy great distances such as other energy sources require, and thus has a much lower impact and reduces transmission losses,” explains Howard.

In regards to the increased need for resources, Howard admits that many solar companies are constrained for resources and often don’t think of the longer term implications for sustainable manufacturing.  There is a need to incorporate this thinking into future product designs.

5.  Government incentives for solar power tends to favour the “big guys”.

“At the onset of the recession, the idea of ‘green jobs’ spread faster than a cold in policy circles. Governments quickly inserted green into their economic recovery plans and this created a great boon for renewable energy, particularly in places where industry dominates.  Although there has been very favourable incentives and policy for renewables, this seems to have favoured big players. Government grants often go to the well prepared and staffed big corporations. So, this green policy boon has only strengthened the big players while the small players have been weakened by the credit crunch,” explains Howard.

For now, Howard continues to fight the good fight.

For more information about Ian visit his blog at http://vectorbravo.blogspot.com.

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