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Good Day, Sunshine ...

September 3, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Staff
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Up on the roof: Here comes the ... energy. With that in mind, David Blumenfeld has set his sights on Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Eos Energy Solutions

After the summer's recent heat waves, the last thing most people may want to think about is more sun.

But David Blumenfeld hopes to change all that, so that when Philadelphians think sun, they don't conjure up images of white heat, but of green energy that can lead directly to greenbacks.

Blumenfeld is president of Urban Eco Electric (www.go-uee.com), a new local company striving to put low-cost solar energy within reach of consumers.

The former real estate attorney said that even though the startup costs for equipping homes can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, UEE is able to knock down that price, thanks to a combination of business and tax credits begun under President Obama's administration. State and local tax breaks and rebates for the promotion of solar and alternative energies also help keep the company's costs lower.

The group rents solar panels to homeowners for a 20-year lease, as well as provides free installation and maintenance.

UEE's goal, explained Blumenfeld, is to equip some 5,000 homes in Philadelphia and, once that is reached, expand to other cities.

The company, which started in January, currently has about 50 homes signed up; Blumenfeld said installations will begin once 100 households have enrolled.

Participants must live within city limits, have a good credit record, own their homes, and have a history of paying their bills on time. Additionally, the house needs to have a flat roof to better capture sunlight. Blumenfeld pointed out that about 85 percent of Philadelphia residences meet that requirement.

Roofs will be covered in about 300 square feet of solar panels, which collect the sun's energy in a direct current format. That energy is then run through an inverter, continued Blumenfeld, which converts the power to alternating current, feeding it into the circuit breaker.

Zapping That Electric Bill

In addition to helping promote alternative energy, Blumenfeld said that the group is also working to lessen homeowners' electric bills.

He explained that during the day, when less energy is being used, the electricity meter ticks backward as solar energy is collected. That builds up a kind of credit, so to speak, and as more people use energy later in the day, the meter then runs forward.

"Our goal," he said, "is to completely eliminate the electric bill."

The cost to customers is a monthly fee based on that household's average PECO bill for the previous year, paid to UEE.

Blumenfeld said that because of President Obama's focus on green energy, the political climate is helping make this sort of thing a reality.

However, he added, that could change if there's a shift rightward in Washington.

"Now it works, so we're pushing as hard as we can," he said.

An Israeli scientist, David Faiman, is also investigating new ways to collect and convert sunlight into solar energy.

Faiman -- a chair of the department of solar energy and environmental physics with the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, and head of Israel's National Solar Energy Center -- spoke at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley as part of a symposium on the work Israeli scientists are doing to harness alternative energies.

Faiman's opinion is that traditional solar panels, like those used by UEE, don't generate much electricity relative to their cost.

His strategy separates the collection and conversion processes, relying on mirrors to reflect and concentrate all that sunlight back into one tiny photovoltaic cell, which then gathers all the energy and converts it.

With this system, he noted, solar energy can now be done so cheaply that "even the politicians should be listening."

The British-born scientist pointed out, however, that the Keystone State isn't generally sunny enough to make solar-energy collection worthwhile. Better, he said, for Pennsylvania to import solar electricity from sunnier states, like those in the Southwest.

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