Apr 04, 2013

Solar Rush

Neda Simeonova

“Here comes the sun, and I say

It’s all right ...”

—The Beatles

The dawn of the renewable energy revolution is here. In addition to wind turbine and solar panel installations, green power is being produced from various other renewable resources, such as geothermal and biomass energy, and low-impact hydroelectricity.  

With rising costs and growing environmental concerns surrounding conventional energy sources, the shift to alternative energy comes as no surprise. Today, renewable power generation accounts for approximately 50% of all new power generation capacity installed worldwide, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

Water utilities are painfully familiar with the high cost of energy. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to pump, treat and deliver water, often rendering energy use the single biggest portion of an agency’s operating budget. The good news is that, if managed appropriately, energy can be the largest controllable cost of a utility’s budget.

As a result, utilities increasingly are considering the use of various alternative energy options to reduce dependence on traditional energy sources. 

Wind turbines are being erected all over the country to power water agency operations. Wastewater utilities are realizing that they can take advantage of onsite energy generation by utilizing biogas from their anaerobic digesters in a combined heat and power system as “free” fuel to generate reliable electricity for their processes. 

But solar power, perhaps, has drawn the most interest from municipal water agencies, which are compelled by the prospect of finding new revenue sources and minimizing their carbon footprint. 

This solar rush is fueled by various factors. Besides the initial investment in the equipment, sunlight is free. While still relatively expensive, photovoltaic technology for solar energy is evolving at a fast pace, production is increasing, costs are dropping and return on investment time is shrinking. 

Furthermore, solar energy is green. Utilities interested in reducing their carbon footprint and implementing long-term sustainable operational practices are turning to solar because it is practically emission free. 

Last but not least is the convenience of solar power in remote locations. Regardless of the location, as long as there is sun, there is an opportunity to generate electricity. 

Of course, like other alternative energy markets, the solar market is highly dependent on and driven by local, state and federal incentives. A number of water utilities have been able to get cash incentives, grants and rebates for installing solar energy equipment, making the purchase of this equipment much more affordable. Solar power purchase agreements also play a role by allowing the utilities to receive stable and sometimes lower-cost electricity, while the solar services provider or another party acquires valuable financial benefits, such as tax credits and income generated from the sale of electricity to the utility. 

Whatever the means, it appears that water agencies are embracing the power of the sun to reduce their reliance on the electric grid, with hopes of one day going off the grid completely. 

About the author

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. Simeonova can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1011.