Change in the Wind

New developments in the alternative energy market may power growth in energy-saving electrical products.

I have always been a nut about harvesting clean electricity from the sun and wind. In the 1970s, my alma mater, Glassboro State College, Glassboro, N.J., had a solar development curriculum in its industrial arts program, and I loved to drop by the solar demonstration facility on campus.

College students would build crude-but-effective solar panels by attaching copper plumbing coils to rectangular boxes built with plywood and two-by-fours, paint the coils and wood black to absorb the sun's rays, mount them on a small garden shed, and hook the panels to hot-water tanks with copper pipe. On a sunny day, even these basic solar panels could heat water warm enough for a grubby college student to enjoy a hot shower.

The alternative energy market has grown since its inception in its Earth Day years of the 1970s, but solar and wind energy still do not produce sizeable amounts power in the United States. Wind energy now contributes approximately 1 percent of all the electricity generated annually in the United States, and it has a long way to go before meeting the goal of 20 percent by 2020 set by the U.S. Department of Energy. Some European nations rely more heavily on wind power. Denmark gets 20 percent of all its power from wind mills; Germany harvests wind energy to cover 6 percent of its annual power needs. Widespread photovoltaic power production is not yet economically feasible, but solar advocates have ambitious goals over the next decade.

The energy conservation movement is picking up momentum on a number of fronts. Plans for new wind farms are under discussion — and under fire — across the United States. Opponents with cantankerous “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitudes are riled about the current plans for wind farms on a mountain ridge in Hawaii and in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Cod. Local opposition against wind farms in California and the northern Great Plains is not as stiff.

Even a relatively small wind farm like the one proposed by Hawaiian Electric Co. can produce a sizeable amount of electricity. On Oahu's Leeward Coast, the 24 to 26 wind turbines — each over 300-feet tall — would provide 36MW to 39MW of energy, enough to power 9,600 to 10,400 homes, according to a recent report in Pacific Business News.

Solar energy is hitting the headlines, too. A new 95-home subdivision in Sacramento, Calif., by home builder Premier Homes will be outfitted with photoelectric roof tiles that will keep home owners' utility bills down to as low as $40 per month, according to a report in the Sacramento Business Journal. The article said the Sacramento Municipal Utility District wants to get 20 percent of its energy load from renewable resources such as wind, solar and geothermal geysers by 2011, and that California wants to capture 20 percent of its energy from alternative energy by 2010. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the act, and in March announced his support of the state's “Million Solar Roofs Initiative,” aimed at creating 1 million solar-power rooftops by 2018.

I found it particularly interesting that the photoelectric roof tiles used in the Sacramento housing development are manufactured by a very familiar name in the electrical industry: GE. GE Energy, Atlanta, has quietly built a robust stable of alternative energy businesses, including two of the leading manufacturers of wind turbines and photoelectric panels. The GE division had 2004 annual revenues of a whopping $17.3 billion.

Even Wall Street is showing some interest in energy conservation. Several months ago, the PS Wilderhill Clear Energy ETF fund hit the market. It's a new index fund that allows investors to invest in a portfolio of “green” companies with interests in alternative energy technologies.

This might seem like anecdotal evidence of a new energy movement. But when you consider it along with the incentives in the energy bill being considered by the U.S. Senate for the use of energy-efficient electrical equipment in commercial buildings, flourishing utility-rebate programs and the slow-but-steady growth of the LEED design standards for commercial buildings, the landscape in the energy market is indeed changing.

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