Polar Energy

The future looks bright for northern light.

Not to be grumpy about it or anything, but the sun just set, and it’s only 4:32 p.m. Next time we’ll see it? Sometime—but not much—before 8 tomorrow morning.

If the cloud cover breaks.

Hmmph.

Thanks to how the earth’s axis angles relative to its path around the sun, those of us who live beyond 45 degrees north latitude have learned to get by on relatively little solar input at least half of each year. We eat breakfast in the dark, wear warm clothes and burn out our car headlights en masse each January.

Yet as concerns over energy security, fossil fuel prices and global warming grow, northlanders, like others, are increasingly interested in exploiting the sun’s energy for everything from heating our homes to powering our iPhones.

But is it reasonable? Does solar make sense in places best known for cold and darkness? Where the need for heat and light is inversely proportional to what the sun provides? Where frigid temperatures, ice storms and snow routinely challenge materials and systems of all sorts, from household plastics to electric grids?

Absolutely, says Larry Kazmerski, executive director of science and technology partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The solar resource anywhere in the continental United States, including Minnesota, “is more than acceptable” to make harvesting its energy worth considering, Kazmerski says.

Sunlight may not be as abundant in cold, dark climates as hot, sunny ones. But it’s abundant enough to be a part of a diversified energy picture. And technology and policy innovators are discovering how to make it even more so, with new and better ways to capture and use the energy in the sun’s rays—accompanied by creative incentives for mainstreaming our planet’s most ubiquitous power source.

Tapping Low-Tech

Talk solar energy, and many of us tend to think high-tech—massive parabolic mirrors concentrating incoming radiation, photovoltaic panels plastered with semiconductors sucking electrons through interatomic space. But in northern climates, one of the most worthwhile approaches to exploiting solar energy is at the other end of the spectrum: passive solar, which uses simple, strategic, sun-sensitive design to light and heat indoor spaces.

It’s an application where northern climates shine. In the sun-drenched south, space heating is about the last thing folks are looking for. In the chill north, however, it’s literally a lifesaver. Instead of working to ward off the sun’s rays, cold-climate denizens welcome them in. With the sun’s low arc in winter, that’s not a difficult thing to do. At noon on a sunny day, the horizon-hugging orb can easily shine right through a south-facing window, bringing with it light and heat and reducing the need for making both from nonrenewable energy sources.

“I think of passive solar actually as a good fit for Minnesota,” says Pat Huelman, coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Cold Climate Housing Program. “We have the need. We have the sun when it’s very, very cold. … If we build an efficient structure and insulate it well and make it airtight, then it’s very feasible to provide much of the space heat need with passive solar elements.”

Huelman’s own home could serve as Exhibit A. Designed for minimizing use of fossil fuels, it combines the best of conservation, efficiency and solar energy. Across the south face stretch 230 square feet of windows. On crisp days in January, when the sun blazes through bright and clear, the light switches are off and the furnace doesn’t run. And when there’s fresh snow, even reflected radiation contributes—a boost of up to 20 percent, Huelman says. All told, he figures his fuel bill is one-third less than it would be without the sun’s input. This past year, he spent less than $400 to heat the 3,100-square-foot house.

To Huelman, passive solar is renewable energy’s best-kept secret.

“Every home has a little bit of it, but we don’t see it intentionally optimized,” he says. “I’m hoping that changes when people realize how inexpensive it can be through good design to incorporate passive solar.”

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FiT for Solar

FiT for Solar

Photo: Seb Weston

It’s farther north than Minnesota. It sees less sun than most of the United States. Yet it leads the world in grid-connected solar PV capacity. What’s up with Germany?

In a word, predictability. Two decades ago, the German government passed a law guaranteeing a 20-year fixed minimum payment for the electricity solar power producers generate. Known as a feed-in tariff (FiT), the law aims to give solar power a leg up by spreading the risk of trying something new across many beneficiaries.

By all accounts, Germany’s FiT appears to be a rousing success. Relatively cold and cloudy though it may be, the nation expected to wrap up 2009 with more than 7 gigawatts of installed solar photovoltaic capacity. According to American Public Media's Marketplace, green technologies are zooming toward the top in the German economy, potentially outpacing the nation’s famed auto industry.

Other northern nations with renewable energy FiTs in place or in the works include Denmark, Poland and Sweden. Ontario’s comprehensive FiT program, set into place in October, should allow the province to phase out coal-fired electrical generation by 2014 and create some 50,000 jobs, according to Ontario Power Authority spokesperson Ben Chin.

In the United States, incentives for developing solar power so far have rested largely with states. About two-thirds have focused on renewable portfolio standards, in which state governments specify a percentage of the power generated come from renewable sources. At least two U.S. states and several utilities have some version of a FiT in place, and half a dozen others are considering the approach.