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Durango, CO 81301

(970)403-5004

Based in Durango, Colorado, Flatrock Solar is a locally owned and operated solar panel contractor and installer serving the Durango area from Cortez to Pagosa Springs and Silverton to Ignacio.  Flatrock Solar has been helping businesses, homeowners and non-profits convert Colorado sunshine into clean, renewable energy since 2010.  

Thoughts - musings on solar panels and renewable energy

This page is for thoughts and ideas about solar and the environment in general.  I'm passionate about solar and think and read about it daily.  This will be a space for these thoughts.

A Brief History of Solar Panels

Matt Helms

The photovoltaic effect was first discovered or credited by Edmund Becquerel, a nine-teen year old French physicist in 1839 when studying an increase in electron emissions reacted to a pair of electrodes when exposed to light. In 1876, William Grylls Adams and a student, Richard Day, discovered that when selenium was exposed to light, it produced electricity, thus the discovery of photovoltaics. 

In 1881, the first solar panel was invented by an American inventor, Charles Fritts who was inspired by the photovoltaic effect. Seven years later the solar cell was patented by Edward Weston of the United States.

 Albert Einstein also theorized about photoelectricity effect in 1905. He believed that light could create electricity if it behaved, sometimes, like a particle rather than a wave. His theory outlined how a light particle might deliver enough energy, all at once, to knock an electron off an atom and create an electric current. A decade later, Einstein’s theory proved to be correct by Robert Millikan. Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for his work with photovoltaics in 1921. His idea helped revolutionized solar energy and help make the solar panels work as they do today. 

It took almost thirty more years for the first practical photovoltaic cell to be invented. In 1954, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin, discovered the silicon solar cell. This cell actually produced enough electricity and was efficient enough to run small electrical devices.  

Because of this discovery, it significantly helped improve daily life around the world by providing power to many utilities such as water pumps for irrigation. Within six years, the PV (photovoltaics) cell technology grew very rapidly and off-grid home-owners began purchasing solar panels for their homes. 1970’s, was a great time for renewable energy sources because there was the first Energy Crisis with oil shortages, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was established, which helped increase further research on PV technology. 

Since the 1970’s, solar panels and solar energy has increased dramatically in numerous places around the country. Solar modules provide over one-million homes and businesses with electricity, which provide thousands of jobs and sustainable opportunities. Businesses are now installing solar panels in homes and commercial buildings.  Solar helps eliminate electricity bills, reduce carbon emissions and they do not create noise or pollution, just clean energy.

Commercial Solar Produces Big Gains

Matt Helms

Commercial solar installations benefit not only from the direct savings on your electric bill, but also from preferential depreciation schedules by the IRS and potential USDA grants.  What this adds up to is a very quick return on investment for commercial solar in the Durango area.  With a lot of businesses looking to decrease overhead and increase their bottom line, controlling energy costs will make them more competitive now and certainly down the road as electric rates continue to rise and federal, state and local incentives are phased out.  

Solar Provides Increasing Returns Year After Year

Matt Helms

Something to consider when calculating your financial return on a solar system for your home or business is that your rate of return will increase as electric rates increase.  When your local utility increases their electric rate X%, so does your return on investment in solar.  In this regard, solar has a built in inflation adjusted return and allows you to fix your electrical costs for the life of the system which is 25 or more years.

Warmest Year On Record

Matt Helms

According to NASA, the first six months of 2016 have each individually been the hottest months respectively ever recorded (which started in 1880).  Also, not surprisingly if you think about the math, the first six months of 2016 have been the warmest first half of the year ever recorded.  This means that the sea ice in the arctic has shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded as well.  This is good news for shipping companies, but not for polar bears and seals.  

Now the question is what is causing it.  There are some theories out there and we don't know 100% for sure what the cause is, but putting solar on your roof can't hurt right?

Radioactive Trash Bags with Solar Array in Background

Matt Helms

I noticed a picture in the Wall Street Journal of the Tsunami Zone in Japan with trash bags full of radioactive waste with a solar array in the background.  How ironic right?  It seems obvious to me that solar is a better energy source than nuclear reactors.  When there's a radioactive spill they have to evacuate entire cities.  When there's a solar spill they just call it a nice day!

Solar array behind bags of radioactive waste.jpeg

On the opposite page of the page there was a small article about how warming waters are destroying Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  No connection was mentioned connecting the two articles, but to me alarm bells are going off.  How many more signs do we need that we need to change course?

Solar in Japan with bleached coral reef.jpeg

Federal Tax Credit Extension Brings More Solar to Durango

Matt Helms

The Federal government extended the tax credit for solar another five years!  This tax credit will greatly help the expansion of solar in the US and more specifically in the greater Durango area.  Solar is really catching on both nationally and internationally so I'm very happy to see our congress has chosen to keep the momentum going and further promote solar.  

Durango Solar Evolution with StorEdge

Matt Helms

SolarEdge, a manufacturer of solar inverters, has officially partnered with Tesla to be the exclusive provider of inverter technology for their up coming Powerwall.  It looks like all SolarEdge inverters will also be backwards compatible with the new Powerwall.  This is exciting news as self-generation of electricity moving into the next phase.  Initially the Powerwall is being marketed as backup power for grid tied solar systems, which is a great reason to invest in the technology since the Durango area can have outages in rural and urban areas.  I hear a lot of interest in backup solar power in the Durango area and this is a product that I think I will be able to offer with confidence.  StorEdge can also be used to increase self-consumption and reduce peak demand.  In the Durango area these two features are not yet economically applicable since there are no residential demand charges... yet.  For commercial customers in the area the possibility of reducing peak demand can shave quite a bit off of a bill.  Some commercial electric bills are 50% demand charge so if that peak demand can be reduced they could save a lot and have backup power for any outages.

Where I think things will get interesting with StorEdge is when projects are limited on solar output because of infrastructure deficiencies on the utility side (think old, small wires that are at capacity because they were installed in 1950 when there were only two houses on the street and now there are 30).  If the StorEdge can be set to limit the amount of power fed back into the grid, perhaps larger projects could be approved without costly upgrades to the utility infrastructure; paid for by the utility customer wanting to install solar.

Another use of StorEdge down the road could be the option to defect from the grid entirely.  I personally don't want to see things go this route because I think that grid tied solar has many benefits and could add much resiliency to the existing power grid in the Durango area for solar and non-solar customers alike, but it might come to pass that this is the most economical decision to make.  This would mean no base rate charge for the meter, no rate change surprises down the road such as demand charges, and no approval needed from the utility.  The Rocky Mountain Institute has been talking about this for some time now and StorEdge is definitely pushing things in that direction.  This is an exciting development and looks more and more promising as the details emerge.

What the Powerwall means for solar in Durango

Matt Helms

Tesla's announcement of the Powerwall has created quite a buzz in the alternative energy arena.  What does it mean for solar in Durango?  Honestly its too soon to tell, but I think it has the potential to disrupt the existing models of power generation and usage.  If Elon can deliver what he announced, then solar in Durango just got a lot more interesting.  More to come.

Fighting wars with solar panels

Matt Helms

In a follow up to my last post on 'Solar and national security', I thought I'd share some interesting stats on the use of solar by the US military.  The US military is the world's largest consumer of energy and is now looking at solar in a big way.  Tanks, trucks, generators, etc. use a lot of energy and unfortunately a lot of soldiers have died transporting fuel from A to B.  The Pentagon has now set a goal of providing "50 percent of the power used by the Navy and Marines come from renewable energy sources by 2020".  This is a huge shift for the military and one that could change the solar industry.  

The war in Afghanistan saw the first marines to use portable solar panels in the battlefield.  Additionally there are numerous military bases around the world that are now equipped with solar power.  I think as we see a shift towards autonomous military vehicles, perhaps powered by electricity, the role of solar in fighting wars will become ever more important.

Solar and national security

Matt Helms

So when I first heard that the Pentagon listed global climate change as immediate risk to national security I thought, "finally, they get it".  This is a global problem with global implications even for rich countries like the United States.  Below is a quote from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel:

“But the challenge of global climate change, while not new to history, is new to the modern world. Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters – all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”

- Secretary Hagel

(source: http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf)

This is coming from a guy that opposed the Kyoto protocol; I guess we're all wrong sometimes.  

Solar vs S&P 500

Matt Helms

HOW DOES A SOLAR INVESTMENT COMPARE TO THE ALTERNATIVE?

If you look at the historic average return on investment of the S&P 500 vs. a solar system you can see what a solid investment solar is.  These two charts below compare your annual and cumulative return on investment if you invested the same amount of money in either the S&P 500 or in a solar system.  The steady return on your investment with solar would be a better long term investment (and easier on your stomach than the roller coaster of the stock market).

Annual return on investment in a solar electric system in the greater Durango Colorado area vs. the S&P 500

Your solar investment dollars will grow more quickly than the S&P 500, when compared to the last 25 years of the S&P 500.

Cumulative return on investment for a solar power system in the Durango area.

And since your investment in solar is a savings compared to earnings in the stock market, you won’t have to pay taxes on the solar investment return!  And by the way, because the price of electricity is very unlikely to decrease in the future and solar panels today have a 25 year warranty, your investment is very low risk.

Why Solar?

Matt Helms

This is a very important question.  Why Solar?  

While pursuing my degree in Environmental Studies I was presented with a lot of global problems and potential solutions.  Everything ranging from overpopulation in Africa to deforestation in the Amazon.  So why did I choose solar when I was looking for a way to give back?  Because there are only four sources of energy on our planet and solar is the biggest one, that's why...

So what are these four sources of energy you ask?

1. Chemical

This is the one that most people think of when they think of energy.  This is everything that gives off energy in some chemical reaction such as burning.  Coal, petroleum, nuclear, natural gas, etc.  So the important thing to remember about this energy source is that it is limited.  Lots of people argue about what the limit is, but the fact is there is a limit.  We are using this faster than it can be replaced.  This is also an important concept in this discussion; sustainability.  In a nutshell, if you're using something faster than its being replaced, its not sustainable.  If you spend more money than you make every month, eventually you'll be broke.  Depending on your bank account balance it might take months or decades, even generations.  But eventually you, or your descendants, will be broke...

So, we're burning up the chemicals available to us faster than they're being replaced.  

2. Geothermal

The center of the earth is hot.  This is caused by gravity.  I'm not a geologist or physicist, but I think we can all agree that these two facts are correct.  This heat can be harnessed with geothermal pumps, etc.  I don't know the details, but the my understanding is that the options are limited and eventually hot springs cool off if you put too much hot water out of them.  I'm summarizing.  

3. Lunar

This one gets people every time, but the moon creates a little energy on the earth with tides.  As the moon pulls water around the globe, the water molecules rub against each other and create friction which produces a little heat.  There are also ways to harness this energy and people do.  In certain areas of the world there are pretty big tides and they let the moon pull water into a bay with a level for example.  When the tides goes out and the water wants to run from the bay back to the ocean, people let the water run through a turbine and create electricity.  This is a beautiful way to harness lunar energy, but I haven't figured out how to do it in Colorado yet...

4. Solar

I of course saved the best for last.  As I mentioned before, solar is the biggest source of energy on our planet earth.  You can google the exact figures, but its a lot.  So the sun shines on earth all the time and causes wind, rain and just plain heat.  So hydro is really solar.  Wind is solar.  And direct sun on solar panels is solar.  

So this pretty broad, long term view of energy resources available to the inhabitants of earth (you and me), hit me in college.  Eventually we all need to get our energy from the sun, so why not start now?

I'd love to hear your comments on this macro concept.  Thanks for reading.