The sunlight that shines on the earth in just one hour supposedly could meet the world's energy demands for an entire year. That sounds impressive, but so far, solar energy has been slow to make inroads in Idaho, except with enterprising individuals on a relatively small scale.
The home of Larry Johnston is powered both by electricity from the grid, and by solar power. During the day, his house runs off solar panels. At night, his house uses electricity from the power company. In that way, his "hybrid" system is like a hybrid car, one that still uses regular gas.
Larry's panels aren't attached to his house, but to a small barn on wheels. Attached to the barn are massive panels that actually move with the sun.
The panels generate enough electricity to power Johnston's home when the sun is shining. "When we flip the switch over to use the system," he says, "you just go about your daily business and it works fine."
Johnston has been using solar power for about eight years and figures it saves him about $50 a month on his power bill.
But there are some inherent problems with solar energy, says energy consultant Karl Smith. "When the sun hits the panel, basically what you're getting is DC electricity. Most everything we want to run is AC electricity," says Smith. "And then you've got the problem, well, the sun doesn't shine at night. And so you need a way to store it. That's what the batteries do. They store it."
Karl Smith began dabbling with solar and wind energy after a long stint working in the nuclear energy field. In fact, he built Larry Johnston's hybrid system. "You don't really have to modify the house. This is like a utility drop. You wire your house the same way you normally would, and you can hook it up to this system and run it."
Smith is waiting for a solar renaissance in the west. "We're asleep at the post here. What's really holding us back is people's attitudes and the fact that we have huge capital investments in doing things the way we've always done them. It's hard to change."