What Is Solar Power? Interview with a Trade Professional


Solar Power Plants
via wordpress.com

On a bright day in May 2006, J.R. Whitley attended his graduation ceremony at Appalachian State University. The person next to him, an English major, asked J.R. his major. When J.R. replied “Appropriate Technology,” the English major looked stunned. This anecdote is hilarious to me, because I was an English major, and, when J.R. said the words “appropriate technology” to me, I could only tentatively mmhmm because I had never heard of the field.

According to the program’s website,

Appropriate Technology reflects an approach to technological development, characterized by creative and sound engineering, that recognizes the social, environmental, political, economic, as well as, technical aspects of a proposed technological solution to a problem facing a society. Generally appropriate technologies are smaller scale technologies, that are ecologically and socially benign, affordable, and often powered by renewable energy. The field is an interdisciplinary one drawing from the physical and social sciences as well as Engineering, Architecture, and Technology. Areas of interest include energy conversion systems, waste and water management, community and shelter design, technology assessment, small scale production systems and technology transfer.

So, its meaning is pretty intuitive if you think about its name: Appropriate Technology is the study of technology that is environmentally appropriate.

Now, eight years after graduation, J.R. is a seasoned professional in the solar power industry, working as a consultant in the technical and design sides of the field. This means helping optimize the design of future solar power plants and troubleshooting, and sometimes repairing, existing plants. He also installs solar systems from time to time. As you can see, he is a pro. In fact, last month he was featured on the front cover of SolarPro magazine.

Because spring is upon us and because I have been seeing a lot of solar lighting products lately (including my personal favorite, solar tiki torches), I wanted to learn more about solar power from just such a professional.

Solar Power
This photo of J.R. was used for the cover of SolarPro magazine. Image via solarprofessional.com

Solar power, J.R. explained in a friendly drawl, is the harnessing of the sun’s energy and turning it into usable electricity. There are two main ways that we can convert solar energy into usable power. You can directly convert the sun’s energy into electricity using photovoltaic solar panels or “modules,”  or you can harness the sun’s heat using lenses or mirrors.

J.R. has worked with solar power on the industrial scale in North Carolina, the state ranked second only to California in the production of solar power. He typically works on ground-mounted solar power plants of up to twenty acres. “They’re small power plants that just feed electricity straight onto the existing grid. It basically offsets what the utility has to produce through more conventional sources, be it a coal fire or a natural gas power plant. It distributes the utility’s energy portfolio and their generation sources.”

J.R. has been seeing large mega-watt systems installed in North Carolina since about 2008, and since then, he says, the growth of the industry has been phenomenal, “quite a ride,” he says. This healthy growth has been driven in part by regulations stating that power utilities must receive a certain percentage of their power portfolio from renewable sources.

Since J.R. started in the industry in North Carolina, state legislation has supported the growth of solar power, and as a result, the price has dropped steadily. When he first started, it was common to pay three or four dollars per watt. Now, if you’re getting a good price and buying a decent quantity, you can find solar modules for as low as seventy cents per watt. J.R. and his thousands of fellow industry professionals in North Carolina are hopeful that solar power will continue to be a high priority for everyone.

So, solar power is about more than photovoltaics. It’s an “appropriate technology” to pursue because it is renewable and is less harmful to the environment than some other generation sources. I’m amazed at the incredible technology we have to convert the sun’s rays into usable electricity. Now that I have gotten myself a little more up to speed with what solar power is and why it’s important, I am going to welcome this spring with a little more enthusiasm for solar technology. Bring on the solar BBQ lights!


Tom Sowders

Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.