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Soaking up the sun! Most of us have been participating in this popular catchphrase for the last couple of months while the days are longer and the rays are plentiful. And while we humans enjoy the warmth and dose of Vitamin D that the sun provides, our homes and commercial buildings can also reap the benefits from that large star in the sky in the form of solar energy.
The discovery that the sun’s power could be harnessed via solar cells began as far back as 1876, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the practice made real forward progress. The 1960s saw NASA utilizing this cutting edge technology as well with solar powered satellites. While at first quite cost prohibitive, the following decades have vastly improved the ability to make this technology feasible and affordable. It is certainly reasonable to assume that the use of solar energy will continue to evolve and become more prevalent.
According to the energy.gov website, passive solar home design is most basically described as using south-facing windows to collect the sun’s heat and then storing the energy in materials until utilized. When designing the home, the climate, the build site, and the materials used all need to be taken into consideration for the full impact. In climates that experience true winter cold, a secondary source of heating is generally needed to supplement solar energy. And while the short-term benefits of adding solar to a home focus on monthly energy savings, the long-term gain may also be actualized in the increased retail value of a home due to this and other energy efficient features.
One local example of a project utilizing solar energy is the Bozeman Public Library. Independent Power Systems (IPS) is the company that designed and installed the system to allow the library to achieve LEED Silver Certification. The 16 kW photovoltaic system estimates their annual energy savings at $2,440. According to IPS’s website, “the Library provides ample reminder of the power of renewable energy.”
NorthWestern Energy has also been working to develop solar energy in the Bozeman area. The City of Bozeman donated land between Bozeman and Belgrade, and NorthWestern has committed to invest up to $1 million for the company’s first project of this size to test solar energy’s large-scale potential. Renewable energy can be tricky to predict, but this attempt to learn as much as possible about how much power can be harnessed is a positive step nonetheless. Montana State University is involved in the research side of this pilot project. The initial output goal is to produce adequate energy for approximately 54 homes. Additional similar projects are beginning in Missoula and Helena.
All in all, utilizing the power of the sun can be a win both financially and environmentally.