Louisiana sold on solar panels

LAFAYETTE, LOUISIANA - An annual savings of $230 isn't much to a university with a $152 million budget, but it could mean a great deal to a homeowner looking to cut energy costs.

On the rooftop of a Lafayette mall, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Lafayette Utilities System officials got an up-close look at that area's second grid-tied solar power system.

Affixed to a section of tin roof, the 1,200-watt system is a smaller version of the one to be installed in the School of Architecture and Design's Beau Soleil Solar Home project starting next month.

"We really wanted to test the system and... see how much power it would generate over a period of time," said associate professor Geoff Gjertson, director of Team Beau Soleil.

"We also wanted to test how it attached to the roof, so we built this section exactly like the actual roof of the Beau Soleil home.


Since it was installed two months ago, the Madison Hall system has generated 233 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to power 707 light bulbs, 233 computers or 7 homes for one day, said Robert Henry, head of the ULL Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

At that rate, the system would save about $230 in energy costs a year, enough to pay for itself in about a decade.

"The cost of solar panels keeps going down, and the cost of electrical power is going up," Henry said.

"So, that payback period is coming down as time goes on."

Solar power has grown nearly 50 percent in the past few years, but it still makes up less than 1 percent of U.S. power generation, deterring most homeowners because of the large initial investment.

But financial aid such as rebates, tax credits and the ability to sell excess energy back to a grid are making solar panels more attractive to homeowners.

Louisiana's credit, which is 50 percent off the cost of a panels system up to $12,500, went into effect last year. When combined with a 30 percent federal tax credit, residents can save 80 percent off the cost of installing a solar system in their home.

ULL is one of 20 schools in the world to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C.

Team Beau Soleil, meaning "sunshine" in French, is designing and building a Cajun-style cottage that runs entirely on solar power.

While most homeowners would probably not want to rely only on solar energy to power their homes, a system that would work in concert with their existing power supply could be an energy-saving alternative.

Customers could draw from the grid during nights and cloudy days, and enjoy the cost savings and environmental benefits of solar power at other times.

"This Beau Soleil project is an exciting one for us," said LUS director Terry Huval. "Solar is going to be an important part of the future for homes and businesses, and this is a really practical way for us to learn how to best position that technology."

Solar power could also be an option for businesses and institutions like Louisiana-Lafayette. The school intends to use data on the Madison Hall system to determine the feasibility of installing solar panels on a wider scale, Henry said.

"We need to supplement sources of power with alternative energy like solar," Gjertson said. "It's not going to be a solution all by itself, but it's something I would hope people would like to incorporate."


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