Whether knowingly or not, we use it every day.
From the dawn of human history, our nearest star, a scant 93 million miles away (give or take) has provided the power we need to start each day by fueling our crops and providing the right amount of heat needed to make earth a livable planet in the icy vacuum of space.
Revered as a god by our ancestors, it's still central to our lives, and now seemingly more than ever, we're learning how to better put it's power to work.
“It's finally solar's day in the sun,” quipped Barbara Nick, President and COO of Dairyland Power Cooperative.
Nick is among those out to prove that no longer is solar energy reserved for those just trying to “go green” or get off the grid. It's working it's way onto the grid itself. Both Dairyland and their cooperative members along with Xcel Energy are now among those catching rays, so to speak.
“We've been an early adopter,” said Xcel's Mike Herro.
But, just how feasible is solar power in a place where snow and sunshine clash throughout the year?
“We're in Minnesota... solar doesn't work here,” Dallas Meyer said. “I think that was the perception.”
Meyer, President and CTO of Ten K Solar, is working to change that perception. Ten K is a Minneapolis-based solar manufacturer that supplies systems both locally and globally working on the cutting edge of solar efficiency.
The company uses what it calls “proven photovoltaic (PV) materials” (those typically used in solar production), wired in a parallel, low voltage system (think modern Christmas lights), combined with the proper electronics to make...
“...Almost like an Erector Set,” said Scott Prahl of Viking Electric. “There's no square pegs in a round hole. It goes together pretty quick.”
And, it's able to survive the sometimes harsh Midwest conditions. That means, light from the sun can continue to hit the semiconductor material in each cell releasing electrons, which flow as direct current (DC power) into converters that in turn produce the alternating current (AC power) used in homes and businesses from summer sun to snowstorm.
Efficiency is still something of a sticking point for solar. Even the best systems Ten K produces only convert about 20% of the light captured into electricity. The rest is given off as heat, which might sound like a concern.
Division Chief Craig Snyder said, “That's not necessarily the cause, being the cause of a fire, but it's being in case you have a fire in your house that we can disconnect that system safely.”
Snyder is a fire prevention and building safety specialist with the La Crosse Fire Department. He said there are codes in place when it comes to solar to keep occupants and any crews that would respond to a fire safe, which makes it even more essential for those considering a system to do their homework.
“Definitely not a DIY project for people to take on at home,” said Snyder.
Still it does work in a home or business because there's no need to burn fuel to create steam to spin giant turbines. There are no moving parts at all. Solar is essentially to a computer as more traditional sources are to an internal combustion car.
That's key to keep in mind.
Jake Wanek of Minnesota Community Solar said, “Is solar the only answer? No.”
As many people use both a computer and car every day, industry insiders tend to agree a mix of energy sources is still needed for safe, steady energy.
Nick said, “The up to 25 megawatts is just the right complement to our existing energy mix.”
There's one more reason solar is becoming a bigger ingredient in that mix. And, that's the bottom line.