Georgia looks for sunny future with solar energy options

ATLANTA - Energy independence was a pervasive theme throughout the presidential campaign season. For that matter, because of oil and gas shortages in the 1970s and the record price oil reached this summer, it's actually been a part of the nation's vocabulary for nearly 40 years.

Despite the continued rhetoric about a need to wean ourselves off of oil, America is still heavily reliant on foreign crude and far from being energy independent.

But Radiance Energies' CEO James Marlow thinks over the coming decade that will change. And he's hoping that utilizing and embracing technologies related to the biggest natural resource the world shares - the sun - will become a big part of that mix.

"Fifty percent of everything we spend in America goes to energy," Marlow said. "Solar energy is clean, renewable, free, and it makes a lot of sense."

According to Marlow, Georgia gets about five working solar hours per day on average. That is in contrast to Germany, the largest user of solar power in the world, which Marlow says gets an average of two working solar hours per day.

From that simple statistic, one can see that the future potential for using solar power in Georgia is almost limitless.

Georgia's sunny future

Marlow has been working in the technology industry for 25 years, mostly in the personal computer business and with the online giant Yahoo. He already sees the similarities between the computer and solar industries.

"I joined the personal computer business in 1983, and this market feels very similar to that," Marlow said. "The same type of dynamics are happening in this space."

In early October, Marlow and others participated in the Georgia Solar Tour, which was a stateside demonstration of solar technology at work. Marlow said this 13th annual exhibition was a complete success.

"We had 33 projects on the tour, and it was double the amount from last year," he said. "We had about 250 people visit, and our mission was to tell people that solar works in Georgia."

Marlow said there are about 330 solar installations across the state, compared to 330,000 in California, which accounts for 70 percent of the American solar market. To drive home what is possible in the industry in Georgia, Marlow likes to mention the tiny country of Israel, where there are more than a million solar water heaters in use.

"Typically in a home, 20 percent of energy costs come from heating water," he said. "And if you install a solar hot water system, it will typically provide about 70 percent of your hot water for free. Now it will typically take about five years to pay that system back, but once that is paid off, 70 percent of your water heating costs would be free for the life of that system."

It's statistics like these that advance the notion that the stateside solar work really is just beginning.

Besides Marlow's Radiance Energies, which designs, develops and installs turnkey solar energy systems, Suniva, a global manufacturer of solar cells, recently relocated its manufacturing operation and research and development initiative to Norcross.

According to Bryan Ashley, vice president for marketing and sales with Suniva, that decision had to do with Gwinnett County's business incentive program, the close proximity Norcross has to Georgia Tech's University Center for Excellence in Photovoltaics, and the state's desire to encourage solar energy through innovative clean energy tax credits available to both businesses and individual taxpayers.

"Georgia, as a whole, can also help grow the solar industry," Ashley said. "Many states are creating incentive programs and utility programs that help homes and businesses purchase solar systems. Combined with recently passed federal incentives, these programs provide a huge boost to the domestic solar industry."

According to Charles Willey, the public information officer with the Georgia Department of Revenue, since July 1 and through Nov. 21, $195,768 out of a possible $2.5 million in Clean Energy Tax Credits have been issued. Marlow said he'd like to see that cap increased to $25 million and would also like to see the sales tax on solar products removed.

"It's the right thing to do for the environment," Marlow said. "The barrier to solar right now is the up-front costs. That's the obstacle. But the price will come down as we have breakthroughs and improvements in the technology."

One example of this mentality at work comes from Steve Cannon, director of Gwinnett's Environmental and Heritage Center. Cannon said the center doesn't have any solar technologies in use because they were too expensive to install when he was helping with the design of that building. But he said if he was designing it today, that wouldn't necessarily be the case.

"At the time of the design and construction, there was not the solar packages that you see today," Cannon said. "The technologies had not advanced to the point where I could use them and fit within the guidelines of the contract. But if I had to do it over again today, I'd certainly take them into consideration because there are technologies now and packages now that weren't there in 2003.

"And if we're ever blessed to consider an expansion, I'd certainly consider it and use it."

Marlow likes to think that with a new president committed to clean energy and creating "green collar jobs" Georgia will become a vastly different state over the coming decade in terms of how it creates its energy and what it needs in order to make solar a bigger part of the state's energy mix.

Marlow said 67 percent of Georgia's energy comes from coal, which is cheap and abundant but also leads to carbon creation in the atmosphere. He said that if the United States moves to a carbon-restricted environment where firms will pay a premium for creating that carbon, the cost of using coal to generate power will increase drastically. And he says that will create even more incentive to try solar.

"I'm no energy futures expert, but I think energy is going to be more expensive in the future," Marlow said. "And we don't have solar here now for mainly two reasons: low energy costs and the culture. The South is typically not a leading edge early adopter of new technologies.

"But we're a fast follower. And the Southeast will have a very rich use of solar in the coming years."