LANSING — The University of Michigan competes with a prestigious solar car team. Many companies around the state install solar energy systems. Negaunee High School is planning a solar project, as is the Detroit Science Center. Even signs along Michigan’s freeways are powered by the sun.
Despite such advances in efficiency, experts say solar energy and self-sufficient homes aren’t in Michigan’s near future — and not because of weather. Costs, among other concerns, remain too high for most consumers.
“Generally speaking, the efficiency of solar energy is increasing about 10 percent per year and the cost is decreasing about 10 percent per year,” said Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth Director Stanley “Skip” Pruss.
“Fossil fuels are on a trajectory where prices are going up, and it looks like they’ll continue to go up. A lot of energy prognosticators think that solar will have an increasingly robust role in terms of energy generation,” he said.
Pruss said there are many open fields and large, open rooftops that could provide space for solar energy panels, but a solar energy-dominated market would require an entirely new grid system for utility companies.
“Part of the challenge is to identify the value of the proposition for utilities to create a new energy landscape,” he said.
While there is potential for solar panels around the state, Michigan Environmental Council policy director James Clift said the next big step for solar energy will be in home building supplies.
“Solar has been an integral part of building for a long time. There is a payoff in any climate,” he said. “But the next breakthrough is solar materials in roof shingles and siding. Heating and cooling is the next frontier.”
Clift cited examples of zero-energy homes in Germany, the leading country in the use of solar energy. Zero-energy homes use energy generated solely by the building itself and don’t need to be connected to a power grid.
Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for government relations at the Michigan Association of Home Builders, said renewable-energy homes aren’t being built in the state yet.
“A lot of great strides in renewable energy have been made since the 1970s, but it’s just not happening,” he said. “It’s a great idea, but there aren’t enough financial incentives to move in that direction. Most homes in Michigan are built conventionally. It’s encouraged, it’s just not widespread,” he said of houses that incorporate solar systems.
Schwartz said governments in California and Austin, Texas, have passed laws requiring all new homes to meet a renewable energy standard within the next few decades, but Michigan hasn’t taken those steps yet.
“Those are going to be more expensive homes,” he said. “We just won’t have the technology to do that in the next 15 to 20 years.”
John Sarver of the Michigan Energy Office said solar energy is happening in Michigan, but is rare in home construction.
“It’s a long process to install a solar energy system,” he said. “But the economics are good in certain niche situations. In an up-North cottage scenario, it might be cheaper to have solar because energy and gas costs will remain the same for years. It’s a long-term investment.”
Sarver said a federal tax credit, supplied through the state, is available for installing solar panels.
Although the agency has been making grants to promote solar power since 2002, the economic crisis may force funding in different directions.
“We offer up to $50,000 for a 10-kilowatt system, which is a sizeable amount of energy,” Sarver said. “Projects usually cost around $100,000, so we pay roughly half.
“We’re not sure if we’ll be offering the grants again. We haven’t committed any new dollars to the program. We hope to do something on a big scale, something for the state of Michigan.”
The 2008 grant recipients were Negaunee Public Schools, the Detroit Science Center and the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland.
Mary Kay Johnson, administrative aid for finance, said an estimated $93,000 solar energy project will begin at Negaunee High School soon.
“We already put out bids for some of the equipment,” she said. “The project should begin in April, weather permitting.”
While experts agree that solar energy is more costly than conventional gas and coal power, they say it’s a great concept with a number of benefits, including cleaner energy and long-term savings.
Clift said while the state is running in the middle of the national pack in terms of renewable energy, it could play a vital part in Michigan’s future.
“The Big Three aren’t going to play as big a role as they used to,” he said. “Green energy is growing in Michigan. We need to pay more attention to renewable energy and we need to do it faster.”