Idaho Power to Begin
by John Funk
The cost of solar power is dropping, while the price of nearly every other energy resources is increasing. And while solar hasn't quite dropped below the cost of more traditional methods of electricity production, the gap is narrowing enough for Idaho Power to take a good, hard look at photovoltaic energy.
"In the event that that trend continues, we see ourselves being able to do a lot more with solar PV," said Mark Stokes, Idaho Power's manager of power supply planning. "If the costs do continue to go down, it's going to become a lot more competitive with other options, as far as other ways to meet future load growth."
In the meantime, Stokes said, Idaho Power plans to have a solar demonstration project up and running near the end of 2012, though it may not get off the ground until early 2013.
It won't be the first time the utility company has dabbled in solar power. In the late 80s and early 90s, Idaho Power harnessed sunlight to power to pump water for livestock in rural areas. And in 1993, they added a solar panel array to the rooftop of their Boise headquarters building.
It is, however, the first step in what may be a move toward larger-scale photovoltaic power generation. And solar technology has come a long way since then.
"The panels that we have up on the rooftop are 17 or 18 years old now, and they're considered an older technology compared to other things that are out there," Stokes explained, adding that the demonstration project will allow opportunities for research and development on newer technologies. "There's kind of two things that are driving the costs lower. They're more efficient, so you get more bang for your buck - more watts per dollar - out of them. And the other thing is that there's a lot more manufacturers out there making panels, so it's competition in the marketplace. . . that's driving the costs down."
So how does Solar stack up alongside other renewable energy sources, like wind? It has one huge advantage, Stokes explained: Predictability. Solar power is naturally at its maximum during times of high electricity usage - mid-day, when people are going about their lives, and during the summer, when air conditioning units and irrigation pumps are working overtime.
"If you get a thunderstorm coming in, and it blocks out the sun, then your production is going to drop off," Stokes said. "But at the same time, it reduces our load, because people's air conditioners aren't quite running as much. So there's a correlation there between the drop in our production and what our load does."
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