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Why Is Solar Power Becoming More Widespread In The Northwest? (Hint: It’s Not The Weather)

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If sunshine is something you crave on weekends, best to get out and enjoy it on Friday if you can.

The forecast gets cloudy on Saturday, with showers increasingly likely on Sunday.  In fact, KPLU weather expert Cliff Mass is blogging this week about how this August is off to a much cooler and wetter start than is typical.

Mass, who is out this week, talked recently about the growing popularity of solar power as a source of electricity in the Puget Sound region. It’s one part of the equation as the region moves toward meeting  targets to reduce climate pollution.

“It turns out that there is quite a bit of solar energy around here. People don’t think about it, but through at least a third to half the year, we do have quite a bit of sun. During the summer we have huge amounts of sun. And that allows one to produce significant amount s of power,” Mass said.

Earlier this year, Mass wrote about what he called “the solar energy revolution.”

“A number of people around here are starting to get solar panels – (called) photovoltaic  systems --  in their homes.  And it’s amazing that this is really becoming economically reasonable,” Mass said.

He says as the use of solar technologies has become more prevalent in sunnier climates such as California or the Southwest of the U.S., prices for the systems are coming down. And there are also government programs to help consumers who want to take the leap.

“There’s tremendous opportunity here to replace a lot of our fossil fuel generation by photovoltaic cells,” he said. “With the tax credits available, the payback period comes down to seven or ten years – something like that.”

Mass says what’s powering the revolution is a combination of those falling costs for the systems as well as improvements  in ways individual homeowners can sell the energy to utilities or store it for their own future use.

The growing numbers of electric or plug-in hybrid cars play in to this, Mass says, with lots of green-minded  people combining those with the solar panels on their roofs. If they’re lucky, they can charge their cars during the day, when the sun is out.

“I know some people that basically don’t buy gas, for the whole summer, because they are charging their cars, using the photovoltaic cells on their roof. So it’s really a beautiful marriage of technology,” Mass said.

He says with the right policies in place, more consumers could invest in these technologies and power their lifestyles with electricity that has a much smaller carbon footprint.  

You can listen to the entire conversation by clicking the “play” icon at the top of this post.

If you want to learn more about solar power in Seattle, public displays are available at the Bullitt Foundation headquarters building on Capitol Hill. Or you might check out the “Sonic Bloom” installation at the Pacific Science Center, near the Space Needle.

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The weekly KPLU feature "Weather with Cliff Mass" airs every Friday at 9 a.m. immediately following BirdNote, and twice on Friday afternoons during All Things Considered. The feature is hosted by KPLU Environment Reporter Bellamy Pailthorp. Cliff Mass is a University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, a renowned Seattle weather prognosticator, and a popular weather blogger. You can also subscribe to a podcast of “Weather with Cliff Mass” shows.

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