Lincoln Hall solar panels a good use of stimulus funds
The government is putting energy and focus into boosting our economy, and some of that energy is noticeably green.
Using $31 million in funds from the state of Oregon with help from the government stimulus and community donors, the renovation of Lincoln Hall included 234 solar panels installed in September.
However, the important question to ask concerning state and government funding is not whether something is worth spending money on, but rather if it is worth prioritizing over other options.
In the case of Lincoln Hall, the government distributed funds wisely.
Other green loans as part of the government stimulus have not been successful. The $528 million given to Solyndra, a solar panel company based in California that went bankrupt in August, is evidence of this.
The problem is not government funding for green energy, but rather the efforts to make individual companies like Solyndra successful. This just creates winners without competition. The stimulus would be used more cost-effectively if given to businesses and schools like PSU, which would choose the most competitive company using increased panel efficiency and lower prices.
Currently, even the most cutting-edge solar panels are not always able to use even 20 percent of potential energy from sunlight. General Electric announced this month that it is developing panels that will achieve an efficiency of 14 percent.
Because companies have not been able to develop solar panels with higher efficiency, it takes many panels, and therefore much spending, to even partly provide energy for a large building like Lincoln Hall.
Even in such large numbers, the solar panels installed on Lincoln Hall will generate only 54 kilowatts of energy, which is 2 percent of the total electricity that the building uses. In the market today, generating this many kilowatts is expensive considering the substantial amount of a building’s energy bill that is still left to pay.
According to the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website, a standard solar-powered water heating system is estimated to cost between $6,000 and $9,000 to install and maintain, as a one-time cost, while a system for electricity can cost between $7,000 and $9,000 per kilowatt.
If the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s lowest cost estimate for solar-generated electricity is used as a guide, then hundreds of thousands of dollars can easily be justified for the large system required to accommodate the low-efficiency panels of today.
To increase efficiency and help green-minded businesses and schools like PSU pay for projects, the government needs to reconsider how it funds solar panel and other clean-energy industries. Aside from letting consumers pick which companies would best serve their needs, government funds should also go toward research that will level the playing field for all companies in the industry, creating greater competition and therefore increasing efficiency and lowering costs.
At this time, however, the government is more focused on using the stimulus to give a boost to companies like Solyndra that are having to compete with clean-energy industries in Europe and China.
In an interview with ABC News on Oct. 3, President Barack Obama said, “If we want to compete with other countries that are heavily subsidizing the industries of the future, we’ve got to make sure that our guys here in the United States of America at least have a shot.”
Unfortunately, picking Sol-yndra as one of the leaders in this international race has not created confidence in the government’s method of distributing loans. While it is important to compete on an international basis, investing solely in companies is not the right path.
This latest development certainly shows PSU’s enthusiasm for energy efficiency and sustainability, as evidenced by the school recently attaining its seventh LEED rating. Solar energy is clearly a priority for the city of Portland as well, as seen by its Solar Energy Program, which supports the increased use of solar panels.
The government needs to start investing in the industry itself, focusing on the best product through research and consumer choices. If it funds more projects like the renovation of Lincoln Hall, the boost to the economy ought to be very green indeed.