Solar Takes Root in Idaho

Innovation, federal policy spur solar adoption


Chris and Rebecca Kastner of CK's Real Food in Hailey covered the roof of their restaurant in photovoltaic solar modules two years ago.

"We want to be part of the solution, not an energy-sucking part of the problem. It's not a lot, but it's something," said Chris Kastner. The panels supply about 15 percent of the energy needs of the restaurant. When they added the modules, Kastner said that CK's became the first commercial building in the state, other than government facilities, to go solar, a trend he hopes will continue. With advances in technology, dropping costs and a growing awareness of alternative energy, solar is poised to secure a place in Idaho's future.

Solar is already more prevalent than you may think. Dave Brueggemann, solar installer and president of Solar Cascade, took BW on a tour from the North End to Hidden Springs pointing out houses that have the modules. You may not notice them, hidden away in back yards and on roofs to meet the zoning codes, but they're there. Some even feed energy back into the grid.

Brueggemann first got interested in solar back in the 1970s after graduating from college during the Carter administration. However, when Ronald Reagan took office, solar energy took the back burner, and since then, Brueggemann has been waiting for times to change. This year alone, residential solar installations have seen a rise in Idaho thanks to a federal tax credit equal to 30 percent of the installation expenditures.

"I signed more work the first six weeks of 2009 than last year altogether. The tax credit makes solar viable for the first time here since we don't have a lot of state incentives," said Brueggemann.

While other Western states have renewable energy programs, such as the California Solar Initiative or the energy tax credits offered in Oregon, change has been relatively absent in Idaho.

"The overarching issue is that alternative energy is slow to take off here because Idaho has some of the cheapest energy costs in the country with hydroelectric power," said Dr. John Gardner, professor of mechanical engineering at Boise State. Gardner heads the Office of Energy Research, Policy and Campus Sustainability and is exploring ways to incorporate alternative energy at Boise State.

"The problem with solar is that it fluctuates with the sun. The solution is to store the energy, but storage loses some energy in converting it to another form," said Gardner, who is working on a variation of compressed air energy storage as one possible solution. Gardner points out that alternative energy developments also require industries to manufacture the necessary equipment.

One Boise company, Inovus Solar, is going in precisely that direction. Inovus has pioneered a solar-powered streetlight that is exponentially more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than what is typically found illuminating the corner.

"These look like your normal streetlight. The only difference is the body of the pole has a built-in solar collector," said Edam Lozano, director of customer solutions.

Inspired by the fact that the 200 million streetlights across the globe each release about 10 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Inovus Solar made a product that reduces the carbon footprint and is "off the grid," less maintenance prone, and non-obtrusive in appearance to picky city planners.

"The streetlights use an amorphous thin film technology. What's different is that the light doesn't have to strike at just the right angle because it absorbs light at a variety of angles, which makes it more efficient," said Lozano. While these lights can be seen around the world, they can also be spotted in action at Eagle Middle School and the WinCo distribution center in Southeast Boise.

Inovus Solar is not the only company in Idaho involved in solar technology. Hoku Scientific and Micron Technology also have a growing interest, according to Paul Kjellander, administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources. Hoku Scientific has a solar division, Hoku Solar, and Micron is exploring manufacturing photovoltaic panels.

"What we are seeing is an acceptance of the technology, and the cost of that technology going down. People recognize solar works. Now the question is economics," said Kjellander. He said one program, Solar 4R Schools, may pave the way to a more solar-powered future. As part of this program, 11 Idaho schools from Pocatello to Boise have had solar modules installed on the roofs of their buildings. With stimulus money potentially arriving soon, more schools may soon see modules, too.

"Every kilowatt hour of energy schools don't have to purchase is a dollar taxpayers don't have to pay," said Kjellander. While this gives students an opportunity to get acquainted firsthand with alternative energy, Kjellander also points out that when schools sit vacant during the summer, extra energy collected can be fed back into the grid. This will provide data on the efficiency of solar modules for potential future usage on government buildings, which may one day persuade state legislators to implement more widespread use of solar technology.

For Scott Gates, renewable energy specialist at Idaho Power, what will emerge as the dominant technology is still unclear. On top of the Idaho Power building in downtown Boise, 90 solar modules supply more than 100 kwh each day. In the desert near Grasmere, Idaho Power has an 80-kwh array constructed for the U.S. Air Force, providing "off the grid" power. Some developing solar technologies border on science fiction, such as paint that uses nanotechnology to collect solar. Others are simple innovations, like placing photovoltaic modules on a rotating base that adjusts to face the optimal position of the sun throughout the day.

Gates, who assists Idaho Power customers looking to go solar, said these improvements are heralding in a new wave of converts.

"Is there a silver bullet? After 15 years of working with solar, I don't think so, but there is a lot of silver buckshot. I don't see any one technology blowing the others out of the water but there are lots of little technologies. Solar is improving. Efficiency is up, costs are down," he said.

"Solar is gaining interest. I usually get 10 calls a day from people interested in solar. All sorts of people--nuclear physicists, lawyers, doctors, insurance salesmen, eye doctors, restaurant owners--are interested. Even with the bad economy and no federal mandates, I don't see much of a slowdown with solar," said Gates. According to Brueggemann, the demographic of solar users is changing, too.

"Prior to this year it was really more medium income and more environmentally aware people. They were doing it for other reasons than financial. This year we have the environmentally aware but also people interested because it makes financial sense," said Brueggemann.

For Brueggemann, anywhere there is a roof and not too much shade, the potential of going solar exists.

"It's not going to disappear like it did in Carter's time. Solar is too big, and it's needed too much. We're all going to have some form of renewable energy in the future. It's here to stay, and it's just going to get better and better," Brueggemann said.