Monday, June 04, 2007

Solar power: it's not just for the Amish!

Obviously the Amish are well known for embracing new technology but you may be surprised to learn that they are the next big market for solar power. The use of solar has given them the benefit of electric lighting without using generators that would compromise their ban on motors (I'm not exactly clear on the details of their rules on technology but it's something like that).

This is not a new debate, of course, but I thought I'd bring it up after hearing the Amish solar story on NPR and recently watching a PBS program on solar power (NOVA, Saved by the sun). The consensus has been that solar power is nice and it's clean and some cute hippies may use it to power their electric bongs but it's far too expensive to ever be in widespread use.

But this is a myth. We have the technology to use it right now for a large portion of our energy needs.

One argument I remember hearing about solar is that, to provide enough power for the United States, you would need to cover the entire state of Iowa with solar panels. First of all, I have no problem with that. (JUST KIDDING! I love Iowa! Big fan!) But seriously, it wouldn't take that much space and obviously all the panels do not have to be bunched together. Most low-rise buildings have enough roof space for panels that would provide enough electricity for that building during the day. Some buildings would actually produce extra power that would go back to the grid and could be used by high-rise office buildings. (And people could plug in their electric cars during the day. OK; I'm getting ahead of myself there.) At night we would need another source of power. One thing that probably is true is that we don't have the technology yet for cheap battery storage of solar power for use at night. But much more power is used during the day so, even if it didn't provide all the power we needed, it would provide a lot of it.

There is a good example for demonstrating that the technology not only exists already but is profitable. A private company is installing solar panels on the roofs of some Whole Foods markets (Sorry I don't have the details. The Whole Foods site mentions several companies so I'm not sure which one was being discussed on the NOVA program). The company pays to install the panels in exchange for a long-term contract selling the electricity to Whole Foods. The panels should last 40 years and the solar company can collect money that whole time. Whole Foods gets a long term contract for inexpensive power without a major investment. Everybody wins. It's obviously economical or this private company wouldn't be doing it.

So why isn't this widespread?

I think it's because this method doesn't really work for the larger consumer market. We should all have panels on our roofs. We would save a fortune over the life of the panels. The panels to power a typical house would cost about $20,000. How much would you spend on electricity over 40 years? $100,000? $200,000? I'm not sure, but I can tell you the panels would be well worth it. The problem is that most people don't have $20,000 to spend on it. Actually, they could probably include the expense in their mortgage and save money on the monthly power bill, but the point is most people aren't going to do that. It just seems too expensive to most people, even with state incentive programs.

And the company that is putting panels on the Whole Foods isn't going to put panels on your house because they need a long-term contract that most homeowners can't give them. (can you guarantee you won't move?) I don't think small solar companies can do this on their own. And I don't think big power companies have any interest in doing it.

I think that's because the long term profits just aren't there. The oil companies control the power industry. The oil companies can theoretically switch some of their holdings over to bio-fuels and continue to make money the same way they do now with oil. But with solar there is the initial purchase of the equipment and then that's basically it. How are the oil companies supposed to make money that way? They can't. They have no long-term plan for dealing with with a move away from fuel-based energy. The problem with solar is not that the technology isn't good enough; the problem is that it's too good.

I think this is why there is so much more talk about bio-fuels. Bio-fuels look good to oil and power companies because they will work much the same way as the currest energy market. Bio-fuels are certainly better than coal or oil but they come with their own set of problems. While there are people starving all over the world, we will be growing crops in order to burn them for energy. It just doesn't seem like the best plan to me. I'm not opposed to bio-fuels, I just don't think they are as good as solar. (Wind farms are also good but they kill birds and take up lots of space.)

Solar technology, of course, could get much better. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday about new solar panels that look like roof tiles, for people who want something more aesthetically pleasing (thanks to desertwind for the link). They are more expensive but will still save you lots of money on power bills. Scientists are also working on ways to bring solar-collecting properties to house paint (and I'm sure they'll eventually figure out how to make solar-collecting windows) so that the entire exterior of buildings will be producing energy. And, like I said, we still need a better way to store the energy for use at night. But the point is we have the technology right now for cost-effective solar power that could fill much of our energy need.

I don't have a solution for getting more people to use solar. State incentive programs help but there is just so much promotion of bio-fuels that I'm afraid people are convinced solar was an idea that has come and gone. I can bring up a broader argument about monopolies. I joke about being a communist but the reality is that I have no problem with private ownership and I think that a free-market system provides important incentives for innovation. The problem I have is that I don't believe there is any free-market in monopolies like power companies. A consumer can't choose his or her power company. You're either on the grid or you aren't on the grid. The power companies are under some regulation but certainly not enough to provide the pressures of a true free market. My point is that, since power companies are monopolies and have very little free-market pressure to innovate or satisfy consumer needs, they may as well be state-owned. I know that will totally freak some people out. It's just a suggestion. Calm down. Our elected officials would then have some pressure to provide innovation to the consumer and could provide the option of solar panels without the concern of reduced profits that a private power company would have.

I know: I'm a communist freak! I can't help it!

Oh, by the way, we rent our apartment so have no way to use solar. And our landlord doesn't pay our electric bill so he has no reason to put solar panels on the roof of our building. This is another example of how the current system of depending on consumers to expand the use of solar doesn't work very well. There needs to be more government action.

Again, your comments are welcome as long as they are polite. Thanks!

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for alerting us to the LA Times story, Eric. I'll check it out. We live out in Joshua Tree and solar would make so much sense. I wonder what the tiles would cost for our little house? The old-style panels are pretty ugly and shiny and it's expensive to retrofit. I wish we were handy enough to install a kit.

http://www.latimes.com/classified/realestate/printedition/la-re-solar3jun03,1,2793192.story

Since we just had to dip into our replace-the-aged-septic-tank fund to pay for my husband's emergency hernia surgery (FU very much Blue Cross...) I guess any outlay is too much right now.

Several local friends have their own solar and/or wind generators and sell surplus back to Edison.

You're right -- you adorable little Communist you -- what is needed is government incentives for alternative energy developers and users. You're also right that bio-diesel is kind of a crock. (speaking of Iowa: corn corn corn agribusiness...) Brazil's program succeeds because they use waste from sugar cane processing.

Anonymous said...

More on bio-fuel from today's Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2095664,00.html

jinxy said...

I have actually looked into solar panels for my new home. I live down in GA, and on those hot summer sunny days it sure would be nice for me to be able to cool my house without having to worry about the $250-$300 power bill that will result from it. Like you said, I will need to use electricity at night and on cloudy days, but cooling my house is less of a priority at that point, and climate control makes up a staggering portion of my power bill.

However, for people in smaller homes, I can see where it doesn't actually make financial sense. My parents are moving into a small one-bedroom house that currently has an average $70/month power bill. If they tack the 20,000 on to their 6% 30-year mortgage, it actually adds around $120/month to their payment. And if the solar panels don't hold out all 40 years, they risk actually losing out on the venture. Plus, to repeat from earlier, they will still have a small power bill attached to that cost for the times they need to use more convential sources for electricity.

At the end of the day, if you are looking at it from an environmental stance, installing solar panels makes sense no matter what. However if you are looking at it from a financial point of view, you have to look at long-term costs, and chance the what-if's on the longevity of the panels.

That being said, electricity rates aren't going down anytime soon...

Ms. Place said...

I love the new direction your blog is taking.

You have touched on an important point. When my husband and I built our second house, we made it passive solar. It had a greenhouse that collected solar energy during the day and transferred the heat through thick concrete walls; it had a wood stove that we would crank up in the evening, and the thick stone walls would hold in the heat. Cost to heat this house during the height of winter? $40 max.

Special vents and the design of the house caused the heat to rise in the summer and out of the house. We had no air conditioning - really didn't need it.

Yes, the house was initially expensive, but it paid for itself over. Before moving, we considered adding a windmill to generate our own electricity, but the homeowner's association wouldn't let us.

Very short sighted.

We had a tough time selling that house. I bet in the future, it will be popular again.

eric3000 said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for the links! And you're right: bio-fuel programs that use waste materials instead of crops make much more sense.

Jinxy,

Yeah, I can see how it would be less financially viable for some people. But people with much smaller houses would also need to spend much less on the panels to begin with. And yes, the panels might need maintenance or wear out early, which is why I don't think all the burden should be placed on consumers. And, like you say, electricity costs are going to keep going up.

Ms. Place,

That house sounds amazing!

Marius said...

Great post! State incentive programs would be a great start. There are some in place now to encourage drivers to purchase hybrid cars. Your statement about a consumer not being able to choose his or her power company is true for the most part, but there are exceptions.

I grew up in a small community that owned its own utility company. In fact, the city (i.e., the consumers via elected officials) controlled almost every aspect of the company. Customers really did have control over the management of their utility services.

I think the federal government should start some sort of assistance program to encourage at least a few city-owned utility companies to look into solar energy. I'm sure some of these cities would agree to it if they received additional funding and support from the federal government.

The federal government already has various Empowerment Programs; this would just be one more step in the right direction.

bungle said...

There is no standard airtight ethical theory that I know of. If there was one all of us would probably know about it. That said I particularly like the Utilitarian "greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number" approach, holes and all. Imagine what it would be like if a majority thought out either a single action or planned procedure with a favorable "calculus of contentment" in mind for oneself AND as many others as possible.

Well, what is communism but a scheme of genius for accomplishing just that kind of proactive morality?

Emotion laden labels aside (you know, that whole "you're a PINKO COMMUNIST _____!") anyone who sees communist theory as a possible problem solving approach to social ills is in good shape because 1) such a person gives a sh*t obviously and 2) it takes a mind of note to see beyond one's personal desires of the moment and actually think far and wide and future.

trixie said...

Solar energy will start to become more affordable. It is frustrating that we aren't there yet.
We are "light years" (get it? ha ha) behind Europe because their governments have invested in supporting research and development. Our government still pours money into the oil and gas industry.
And corn subsidies. That make our population obese. (I agree with anon11:50 on why bio-diesel works in Brazil but is a crock of corn syrup here.)
A number of years ago there was a state incentive program and we were able to put one solar panel on our roof. I think it cost 7K. It covers about a quarter of our energy costs (for an 1100 square foot house) although keep in mind that we don't have a heating system. (There was radiant heat but it doesn't work and we've never put anything else in.)
We are already as energy efficient as you can be without being Amish or annoyingly self-righteous environmentalists. At least we line dry our clothes and we live in an Eichler. They are perfect for solar energy. (www.eichlernetwork.com)
But we can't afford to put up any more panels. It drives me crazy that our house isn't powered by solar energy. It would be so easy. It is such a waste.

We're the Party People: When we first put the solar panel on the roof we would invite our friends over to watch our meter go backwards. Okay, we watch our meter run backwards. It's a beautiful thing. For the mildly autistic.

eric3000 said...

OMG, you have an Eichler?! I am so jealous!

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:50 was me -- desertwind

Our house is 1100 square feet. I should check into solar again.

Ms. Place, I'd love to see pix of your home. And trixie b's, too!

No heat, trixie b? I wonder if you and your Eichler are "down below" from me?

Ours is a homestead cabin built in 1953. It's been added on in stages since the 70's and the original block cabin is now one of the rooms. Luckily, previous owner put in double-pane windows and stuccoed, which helps insulate, but what we really need to do is raise the roof! It rests directly on the wood-beamed ceilings, which means virtually zero insulation up there.

Oh, well. We've only lived here for ten years. What's the rush? ...

eric3000 said...

Thanks, desertwind! I added the link to the Times article to my post.

Marius,

I actually meant that the consumer doesn't have the ability to choose between different utility companies. But you make a good point: some utility companies are already public, as they should be.

And, yes, some states already offer incentive programs for consumers to install solar. I think some states will pay for as much as half the cost. And then there are additional tax savings. So there are programs in place already that are definitely a good start. I just wish utility companies were more proactive in their solar use, instead of mainly depending on consumers.

And Trixie brings up a good point about Europe. Strong government involvement is responsible for very high solar use, especially in Germany. We should definitely be looking to them as an example.

chippo said...

Hi Eric, I enjoy your blog and was pleased to see your post about solar power. Citizenre is a company that is working to make solar power available to everybody. While panels will not actually be available to the public until 2008, this company will offer the opportunity to "rent" solar panels for periods of 1, 5, or 25 years. They will take care of all installation, maintenance, and permit fees. In exchange, you pay a security deposit and a monthly usage fee equal to or less than the cost of your current electric bill. If you sell your home, Citizenre will move the panels to your new house for you, or your can sell your contract to the new owner, or you can cancel your contract. I think it's a great program because it requires minimal upfront investment and no long-term commitment. I may have some of the details wrong though, so please check out their website at http://renu.citizenre.com . I am not a homeowner, but my parents are and have already signed up to get their panels as soon as they become available. Hooray!

In addition, scientists in Japan are working hard on solar panel technology and are producing tiny, round solar cells that take up much less space than traditional panels. Read more here: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/006018.html.

eric3000 said...

Thanks, chippo! That sounds like an interesting idea!

kbryna said...

wow! envy! and thanks for all this info....i bought my (first ever!) house last summer, a 100-year-old highly inefficient little "cottage." since i am a grad student and make virtually nothing, i cannot afford to add ANY solar stuff...i looked into solar hot-water, which is a relatively inexpensive way to begin solarizing. i still can't afford it, but I wish i could....

incidentally, just this week I was feeling pissed off because WHERE ARE THE ELECTRIC RECHARGABLE CARS???

i want to plug my vehicle in at night, let its solar panel charge during the day, and zip around town fossil-fuel-free.

bah. it's like people don't WANT the future to get here.....

Ms. Place said...

desert wind,

I wish I could show you a picture of that house, but I lived in it before digital cameras. The thing is, it was a passive solar house. Therefore, it wasn't very pretty on the outside, just a big square box, with a greenhouse solar collector on the south side, and a huge vent that spanned the entire roof facing north. Vents were arranged inside the house, an we could open or close them according to our needs.

The house had to sit true south, regardless of the view, so its main solar collector, the greenhouse, could track the sun. The greenhouse had a two foot thick floor filled with rocks and stone and concrete. This too retained heat, which was slowly distributed into the house.

The inside core was a thick square of concrete, which collected heat from the wood stove. The stove sat in the direct center of this 1,400 sq. ft. house. The concrete core held the heat for a long time, just like the floor in the greenhouse.

Our windows were triple glazed glass, and they were covered with window quilts (not pretty) but very efficient at keeping out the cold, or the direct rays of the sun in the summer. During warm weather we opened all the windows and vents (which were closed in winter), and the heat rose out of the house. Even our closets acted as big vents.

It was an experimental house that was designed free for us, provided the architect could show it at any time to potential customers. We saved energy, but the house was not particularly pretty or cheap to build.

BigAssBelle said...

but it's far too expensive to ever be in widespread use.

that's the talking point, promulgated by big oil and our corporate-owned government, but i say bullshit.

i remember when calculators were desk-sized and cost thousands of dollars and that was back in the '60s and '70s.

then calculators, through ongoing research and technological breakthroughs, became so miniscule they could become a part of your watch or a tiny little insert in a checkbook.

it is purely our focus in this country that keeps us from developing this technology. well, and the fact that we have become a country of passive consumers whilst R&D has been outsourced to other countries.

i am enough of a rah-rah american girl that i believe there are few problems that can't be solved by scientists focused on desperate problems. in my book, energy is a desperate problem. but in the book of the oil companies, we are just working up to high times.

as the oil supply becomes more and more difficult to maintain, the prices will go up and up and up. where's the motivation for exxon to do research on alternative fuel sources? there is none. there's a HUGE incentive for exxon to get in the way of legislation that would properly fund research into alternative energy.

i always wonder, though, are the oil company executives so blind that they cannot see that their families live here too? or do they just assume they are so far removed from the average joe that they'll be able to escape the disastrous result of the path we're on.

i, too, like the new direction of your bloggity blog, eric. yay!

Anonymous said...

eric3000 said...
No, my reluctance had to do with the fact that I just thought Obama was so young.

JFK was 44 when he was elected, right? I like the idea of a new Camelot. Beats the crap out of what we have now. I just hope that the primitive thinking (racism, religion over reason, fear over reason, etc.) that still stains the promise of this country's idealism doesn't befall Obama like it did our 35th president.