June 1, 2004
Chuck Skidmore jokes that he has spent most of his nearly 40 years as an engineer in the energy industry "working for the dark side."
Much of the time he was helping start up and operate power plants fired by coal, oil or gas — fossil fuels that produce airpolluting emissions.
"All the things that make a lot of dark smoke," said Skidmore, Scottsdale’s energy management engineer for the past several years.
Today he is committed to bringing energy generation into the light, as in sunlight and solar power.
Skidmore is president of the Arizona Solar Energy Association, an informal group of engineers, scientists, architects and environmental experts.
For years it has functioned mostly as an information-sharing network for its members, but now is gearing up to focus on public education, Skidmore said. The organization wants to herald advances in solar technology that advocates say could put sunny Arizona at the forefront of environmentally conscious renewable energy resource development.
The group aims to help meet the goal proposed by Gov. Janet Napolitano in a recent speech at the Western Governors Association Energy Summit.
Napolitano said she’d like to see Arizona become "the Persian Gulf of solar power."
In a state that is soaked in sunshine more than 300 days a year, the governor said, "We ought to be harnessing this free source of energy on a large scale. . . . It holds the key to reducing our dependence on electricity generated by cumbersome and vulnerable plants using 19th- and 20th-century technologies."
Skidmore said the potential of capturing energy from sunlight on a large scale is dramatic.
"Enough energy (in sunlight) falls on Arizona to power North America and South America. More energy falls on your house than you could ever use," he said.
"It’s silly that we spend billions of dollars a year for the raw materials to burn in our power plants. . . . A big solar plant would cost about the same to run as a coal plant, but with solar the fuel would be free," Skidmore said.
Part of Skidmore’s job is to ensure that Scottsdale’s municipal operations are as energy-efficient as possible. The city and other Valley communities are making strides in energy conservation, but Skidmore and other solar advocates say progress falls far short of what expanded use of solar power could achieve.
The challenge is getting state and local governments and utilities to make financial commitments necessary to develop infrastructure for large-scale systems, said Tempe resident Sean Seitz, president of the Arizona Solar Energy Industry Association, a coalition of about 35 solar businesses.
Seitz and Scottsdale resident Will Herndon own American Solar Electric, a photovoltaic systems company.
The solar business group is trying to convince government and energy industry leaders of the big benefits of investing in solar power.
The problem is that most utilities and government programs are geared to short-term investments and returns, while the payoff in solar "is a long-term thing," Seitz said.
The group would like to see government and utilities offer consumer incentives for home solar systems, which would in turn increase market demand on public and private utilities to provide more solar power resources, Seitz said. "There are proven business models for incentives that are working in Japan and California. . . . The markets (for solar energy) in those places are just taking off," he said.