Going Solar in Central Ohio

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Al Debalak had 18 solar panels installed on his Berwick Drive home in Columbus. He was stunned when he saw what happened to his electricity meter. “Oh my Gosh! It’s going in the opposite direction!” says Debalak.

The electricity meter spins in reverse when the solar panels produce more electricity than the household needs. Debalak says his monthly electric bill fell by 70% since he had the solar panels installed.

“We’re impressed. We’re very impressed,” says Debalak.

Debalak is not alone. Michelle Greenfield – from the company ThirdSun Solar – has been in the solar panel business for 12 years.

“Our business has grown tremendously over the past 3 years. We more than doubled from 2007 to 2008 and the year before that we tripled,” says Greenfield.

And she says business has not really slowed because of the recession or the drop in energy prices. Greenfield credits state and federal tax incentives for the sustained momentum.

The gross cost of a solar system is about $40,000 – but new customers end up paying only a fraction of that cost.

“A system may cost $40,000. If you get a rebate from the state of Ohio the rebate would be 30% to 40% off and the federal tax credit would be another 30%. It’s like a 70% off sale on solar,” says Greenfield.

That brings the $40,000 cost down to about $12,000. Despite those savings, solar panels aren’t a bargain. The payback period for even a discounted system is about 10 years. This might explain why people like Al Debalak say money does not drive their decision.

“I’m just concerned about how we use our energy and being responsible. We didn’t do it because we wanted to pay itself off,” says Debalak.

Steven Ringel is a professor of Material Science at Ohio State University. He explains that solar panels are costly because it’s difficult to find a material that converts light to electricity.

“It’s actually a very hard problem. It’s very difficult to convert all of the sunlight to electricity,” says Ringel.

Solar cells are made of a special type of material known as semiconductors. Most materials classify as either conductors of electricity – like copper – or insulators of electricity – like porcelain. But semiconductors are both of these things.

Professor Ringel explains how it’s this property that allows semiconductors to work in solar cells.

“A semiconductor becomes very conductive when light gets absorbed. It directly converts energy in the form of light to energy in the form of electricity. Wood, of course, might get hot,” says Ringel.

And not all semiconductors are equal. Some are better at converting bluish light to electricity, while others are better at converting reddish light. A perfect solar cell is one that is able to convert all colors found in sunlight.

“When you think about the sun there’s a distribution of colors. A good solar cell material would be one where most of the colors are absorbed by the material. That depends on the chemistry of the material,” says Ringel.

So it’s all about finding the right material or combination of materials. Ringel’s group is testing the effectiveness of layering different types of semiconductors.

“There are many new players in the field. Solar cells that are made out of polymers, that are flexible, solar cells that are made out of very esoteric materials,” says Ringel.

Ringel is optimistic that – one day – research will produce a widely available, inexpensive, and efficient solar cell material.

“It’s a matter of time. The race is on. There are so many research groups and companies that have entered the field. You know, there’s been some great findings,” says Ringel.

As for Debalak, he looks forward to promoting the idea of going solar to others who are interested. He says that solar energy, despite Ohio weather, is worth it.

“Everybody told me when we put those up that we wouldn’t be able to bring in the amount of power that we needed – because Ohio’s so gray especially Columbus. But even in gray central Ohio, we seem to be doing ok with this,” says Debalak.

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