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Experts hold out hope for solar energy

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After living through the “first” energy crisis in the 1970s, Dave and Susan Chrzan figured the days of cheap fuel were numbered.

So the Sarver couple looked for ways to harness the sun's power to meet their energy needs.

“We realized that energy costs weren't going to go down and the cost to the environment of continuing to use traditional fuel sources was increasing, so we began investigating alternatives to heat our home,” said Dave Chrzan, 60. “Several years ago we decided to install a solar panel system because it was another way to utilize a renewable energy source.”

Their rooftop system provides about 30 percent of the energy needed to operate the all-electric home, and it doesn't have a negative impact on the environment.

“It's a wonderful system,” Chrzan said. “I just wish we had a bigger roof so we could install more panels.”

Though the high-profile failure of several U.S. solar power companies that received government backing raises questions about the industry's health, some energy experts believe the flops do not necessarily dim prospects that solar energy could someday provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Rick Rothhaar, a solar engineer and director of business development for the nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc. in the South Side, said taking risks to advance solar energy technology was the prime reason for the demise of some firms.

“Companies such as Solyndra failed because they were seeking to innovate beyond the current technology available,” Rothhaar said, adding that the need to advance the technology was propelled by a lack of refined silicon, the raw material used to make solar panels.

“Whenever you're trying innovative things, there's going to be winners and losers,” Rothhaar said. “In recent years, the (silicon) supply problem has eased and raw material has become cheaper, which has resulted in the cost of solar panels being as low as they've ever been.”

Rothhaar said the state of solar energy technology is at about the level of personal computers during the 1980s.

“Back then, computers were slow, expensive and couldn't do a whole lot,” he said. “But over time, that all changed. I think the same will happen with solar technology.”

Solyndra went bankrupt despite a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government.

Other major solar company failures include Abound Solar in Colorado, which went under after getting a $400 million federal guarantee; and Amonix in Nevada, which folded despite a $15.6 million cost-share grant and $6 million in tax credits from the government.

One solar panel installer said he believes demand for the systems will continue, despite reduced growth in the industry since the elimination of state grants that offset the cost of panels.

“The grants really made the panels less cost-prohibitive,” said David Chorba, owner of Pittsburgh Solar Works in Kennedy. “But the number of installations really dropped off once the grants ended. That's beginning to change, though.”

Chorba said competition among manufacturers, especially from Chinese firms, is driving down the cost of panels.

“We meet people all the time who have wanted a solar panel system on the roof their entire lives so they can get off the electric grid,” Chorba said. “Now that prices are coming down, I think we'll begin to see a lot more people being able to fulfill their dream.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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