Syracuse University Magazine

The Real Power of Solar

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By David Staller

With my car in park and air conditioning on 3, I recited my elevator pitch over and over in the non-descript office complex four summers ago. It was a forgettable day. Two weeks prior to this interview I had been laid off from my job as a project manager with a photovoltaic (PV) installation contractor. Solar had always been something to carry me through the bad times—when architects stopped designing and contractors stopped building. Fifteen minutes, maintain eye contact, stay composed, and relax.

I didn’t get the job. But what was interesting was how the interviewer, an executive for a multinational contractor, held my solar experience with such obvious disdain. During my short career in PV, I had heard nothing but enthusiastic inquiries: How much can I fit on my house? Does it really work? Can I stop paying PECO? Yet now, post-interview, I was questioning my past. Was solar for real, or was it just a bunch of opportunistic hackers? It took some serious thought to stifle my anxiety, but I ultimately concluded that solar, like many forms of alternative energy, has not only a place in society, but also a purpose.

Energy conservation and efficiency are the most cost-effective approaches to reducing energy demand. Education is paramount to implementing conservation and efficiency programs, which often require lifestyle changes that we tend to resist. Electricity—what it is, how it works, and what’s involved in creating it—to most people is obscure, exotic, and taken for granted.  Many Americans lack even a basic understanding of simple electrical systems, such as one found in a home. Start discussing loads, watts, and current with most homeowners and their eyes begin to glaze over. What solar can do is encourage home and business owners to understand basic electrical knowledge, for without this they could not appreciate their investment. After all, when people purchase a solar electric system, they purchase a power plant, and thus become its CEO, CFO, and COO!  It is this penetration of energy awareness that will propel any cultural movement toward smarter thinking.  And we can use PV, or solar thermal, as one tool to nudge us in that direction.

PV is a distributed type of power generation that requires local American businesses to sell, engineer, deliver, administer, install, and maintain.  And despite the predominance of media attention on foreign (and domestic—ahem, Solyndra) module manufacturers, who hold a majority market share, many inverters, and most combiner boxes, monitoring equipment, wire, conduit, and other installation materials are made, assembled, and designed in the United States. These are technical jobs that demand decent compensation and are difficult to out-source. The correlation of increasing solar production and jobs is hard to ignore. After all, this is technology that was designed for the rooftops of our homes and businesses. It is quite literally a rooftop (or ground-mount) power plant that, again I’ll reinforce this point, requires a proportionate amount of administrative, accounting, legal, and managerial support that large utility-scale plants require.  The point being, solar is no less a domestic power source than nuclear, coal, or hydro, and I would argue serves us, our towns, and our states in more profound ways.

Looking back on my interview, I now feel fortunate that things didn’t go as I had hoped. Today, I am four years into my career as a solar engineer and am proud to be part of this second wave of consumer interest. Unlike in the ’70s, and despite how much the industry has slowed, it looks like we’ve reached a tipping point and solar will be here to stay. It is my hope that everyone looks past the stereotypes, the urban legends, the fear-mongering, and focuses on the proven strengths of PV—the real power of solar.

Dave Staller ’05, who holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, is a licensed professional engineer with United Management & Consultants of Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, where he specializes in PV system design, testing, and maintenance. He rents in a solar-powered home in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia that is currently running an energy surplus.