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!