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Plugging into the Sun: Los Altan works toward a bright future

 Image from article Plugging into the Sun

photos by joe hu/town crierMogens Lauritzen, top, develops solar systems that use rooftop panels. The panels power water heaters in the home, above.

Los Altos resident Mogens Lauritzen is a man on a mission. The Los Altos-based engineering firm he founded, Lauritzen Engineering, dedicates all of its resources to the development of solar energy technology.

The firm has helped to install and monitor solar-electric and solar-thermal systems in several Los Altos homes - Lauritzen's among them. Five homes on his block either have or are installing solar energy systems.

Lauritzen Engineering, founded in 1997, didn't start out in the solar power business. At first, the firm provided design services to Silicon Valley technology companies, and Lauritzen spent his time designing microprocessors for those corporations. Two years ago, the firm changed course and began working solely in the renewable energy sector. The decision was a personal one for Lauritzen.

"It was a very difficult decision, " he said. "(But) I felt that I could make a bigger and (more) lasting impact by moving into alternative energy."

The alternative energy business may be less lucrative than other high-tech fields, but Lauritzen is passionate about using his knowledge to advance a cause that matters to him.

"I have a keen interest in the environment, local, state and national, " Lauritzen said.

His primary goal is to develop new and better technology for solar systems. By improving the efficiency and reliability of the systems, he hopes to help make widespread use of solar power more profitable and practical. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, Lauritzen believes that solar power will eventually be able to provide a sufficient amount of energy to overtake nonrenewable energy sources.

"I don't doubt for a moment that we will be able to harness this energy, " he said.

Past efforts to achieve large-scale use of residential solar power faltered due to the less sophisticated technology of the 1980s, according to Lauritzen. Despite homeowner enthusiasm, in the long term, solar panels were often removed. At the time, systems weren't designed to give customers feedback on the energy their panels generated. Additionally, there were technological problems - in the winter months, systems were sometimes damaged by freezing conditions and their overall efficiency was questionable.

Lauritzen uses the RACE acronym to describe the necessary attributes of a solar system: reliable, accountable, controllable and efficient.

"Unless you can master all that, it's not a worthwhile proposition, " he said.

The solar systems installed in Los Altos homes usually fall into one of two types, though some homes use both. The first is the solar-electric system, which generates energy for a home's electrical needs, reducing the amount it draws from the city's electrical grid. The second type is the solar-thermal system, using collected energy to heat the home's water. Both are powered by panels installed on the roof, which collect energy from the sun during daylight hours.

Among Lauritzen's innovations are solar systems that can heat a swimming pool, power a hybrid car or provide radiant heating to a home.

One perk of doing business with the firm is that each installed system becomes part of a network that monitors the system's efficiency. Customers are sent monthly reports on their natural gas and solar energy usage, which allow them to review the results of their investment. Remote monitoring can detect problems - an inefficiently functioning solar-thermal system might be traced to a loose nut. The customer would receive an alert with information about the problem.

The benefits of a solar system don't come cheaply. The cost of installing a home system ranges from $20, 000 for small systems to $150, 000 for more ambitious ones.

"The limit is how big a house (you have) and how crazy you want to be, " Lauritzen said.

When working at their highest efficiency, solar systems can pay for themselves remarkably quickly. In a home with water heated by electricity, savings from the reduction in electric bills could make up the cost of the solar system as early as five years after installation. However, in homes with water heaters that use inexpensive natural gas, payback may take 10 to 15 years.

Additional economic incentive comes from the California Public Utilities Commission, which reimburses homeowners a small dollar amount per watt of generated solar power. The incentive, part of the California Solar Initiative, applies only to solar-electric and not to solar-thermal systems. Other incentives, rebates and tax credits are sometimes applicable. The U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technologies Program maintains a listing of these incentives.

Practical concerns can throw up unexpected obstacles in the process of installing a solar system. For instance, trees are a frequent problem. The shade produced by a tree positioned near solar panels can significantly reduce their efficiency. California's Solar Access Laws provide some level of protection from this particular problem. Once a solar system is installed, the Shade Control Act of 1979 prohibits the planting of new trees on neighboring properties that could substantially shade the panels during peak daylight hours. To coordinate with that effort, solar system installations are subject to setback requirements that regulate their distance from property boundaries.

Some old houses also make installation difficult, as their roofs are sometimes degraded to the point that installing panels without first reroofing would be useless. In general, retrofitting old houses with panels is more costly.

Lauritzen suggests incorporating solar panels into planned roof remodels, and is adamant that space for solar panels should be planned into the design of homes being constructed.

"We live in an affluent community. If you buy a million dollar house, why shouldn't you invest another $20, 000 to put a solar system on that house?" he said. "Every house has a possibility of having a solar system. In 50 years time, every house must have a solar system."

Lauritzen's concern is not solely environmental. He believes that homeowners will be forced to adjust to the changing realities of energy availability or their investments in their homes will become obsolete.

"I can guarantee you, 50 years from now global warming (and) lack of access to fossil fuel will be a fact, " he said. "Not having some kind of alternative energy system to back up your house is going to be a problem."

Even so, he doesn't expect everyone in Los Altos to rush out and install a solar system immediately.

"We have 10, 000 households (in Los Altos.) Does that mean we can go out and put in 10, 000 solar systems? I would say not, " he said. "I think we need to make incremental improvements. The wrong thing would be to make everyone install it today. I don't think the end result would be desirable. But we do need to keep the pressure up."

He noted, "It's really the environmentally concerned folks that are stepping up to the plate right now."

As solar systems become more popular, Lauritzen expects prices to go down, making it easier for homeowners to afford new systems. Improved technology will also make each system more productive, he said. Lauritzen's vision of ideal future development includes a great deal of participation from the public sector. He imagines parking structures, libraries, city halls and schools covered with solar panels.

In the next hour, the sun will radiate more energy onto the earth than the entire human population will consume in the next year, Lauritzen said.

"The sun is the biggest nuclear power plant we have around, we just need to learn how to tap it."

For more information, visit www.lauritzen.biz or www.energy.ca.gov.

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