UCSD receives grant for solar energy

UCSD is collaborating with UC Davis to use a two-year, $700,000 state grant to speed development and use of solar energy.

The grant is from the California Energy Commission (CEC), which annually awards up to $62 million for research and development projects to provide environmentally sound, affordable energy services and products.

“This is a very positive step forward so we can help the CEC map and execute policies that increase solar power production in California,” said Farrokh Najmabadi, director of UCSD Center for Energy Research. “We are trying to bring all stakeholders involved in solar together. This is a long process, to make sure you have a plan and a strategy that cover solar energy production from discovery all the way to building and operating it economically at the end.”

The state has a goal of installing 3,000 megawatts of solar energy in California by 2017.

To achieve that, ways must be found to make solar more productive and cost-efficient.

That won’t be easy, said Dave Thompson, energy consultant with Borrego Solar.

The company has worked over the past few years with UCSD, which has spent $8 million to $9 million to install 5,700 solar panels campuswide in its drive to become a national model of energy sustainability.

He said technological hurdles remain to be cleared if solar power is to be more widely expanded.

“The efficiency of solar panels haven’t changed much in the last 30 years,” Thompson said, “still topping out at getting only 17 (percent) or 18 percent of the sun’s power to create electricity. You need a large footprint, land basically, to create the same power as fossil fuel.”

Thompson said solar likely isn’t the only alternative to relying on fossil fuels for energy production.

“All of the renewable energies - hydro, wind and solar - all work together,” he said. “Each is going to be a piece of reducing fossil fuels. Solar right now is a very small amount, but it could be up to 25 percent, with renewable energy (eventually) making up to 50 percent.”

Najmabadi agreed, noting that California still has a long way to go in weaning itself from fossil fuels in its energy production. “Sixty percent of our electrical production comes from fossil fuels,” he said. “Little comes from renewable because they are very expensive. I personally believe we’ll end up with an array of technologies - and solar would be one of the main factors.”

The government providing monetary incentives to use solar will play a critical role in expanding solar technology.

“Without any government incentives, it’s relatively expensive to install,” Thompson said. “But with all the rebates and tax incentives, the average commercial installation can be paid back in five to six years. The quicker you get that paid off, the quicker you have free energy, and you are helping the environment for the next 30 or 35 years.”