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How Green Was My Tally

Companies battle it out to prove that they have more solar panels than their competitors.

No sooner had Target Corp. announced in
April that it had installed solar systems atop 4
California retail stores (with plans for more) than
Wal-Mart announced a similar project for 22 of its
stores. Last year a nearly identical battle took place
in Silicon Valley when Microsoft’s boast of having the
largest solar array there was trumped by Google’s
plan to build “the largest solar installation on any
corporate campus in the U.S.” at its Mountain View,
Calif., headquarters.

As companies in all sectors now look for ways
to “green” themselves, any return-on-investment
analysis of solar power has to include public-relations
appeal. Customers respond well to environmental
friendliness and seem inclined to punish companies
that ignore this priority (see “A Toxic Mess“).

The big impediment to solar power has
always been cost. A photovoltaic array atop a
100,000-square-foot facility can run $3 million,
according to Jigar Shah, CEO of SunEdison, a Maryland-
based installer. The
price can run even higher for
tall buildings, due to safety
concerns during installation.

But the spot price for
polysilicon, a key ingredient
in the panels, is starting to
come down, and new financing
options may also help.
SunEdison offers “nonrecourse
financing,” in which
it pays the installation cost
and assesses the customer
an annual fee based on the amount of power used.
That may prompt companies to install solar at multiple
sites rather than a single, image-boosting location.

The financial case for solar is further strengthened
by state incentives and a 30 percent federal tax
credit. But beware: in some states the rebate will be
reduced over time, on the presumption that prices will
drop. And despite falling costs, the current price for
photovoltaic is more than double that of conventionally
supplied electrical power.

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