Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Solar?

Distributed solar energy systems are currently in direct competition with grid delivered electricity and gas.  There is very little market penetration for solar yet and those of us advocating for solar could be daunted by the slow pace of its adoption.  One of the beautiful things about distributed solar is that once a person decides to go solar, a system can be up and running on their house in a very short period of time.  A whole neighborhood could be powered by the sun in less than a couple of weeks.  Once we have a solid, national will for clean energy, scaling up distributed solar will take much less time than anyone might think.

This brings me to my point for this post--building a solid, national will for clean energy.  I have distilled the reasons for solar into the 4 points that I'll lay out below.  There are plenty more reasons for renewable energy, but I think keeping the list short and factual is most effective as I want it to be memorable and irrefutable.  Let me know what you think!

1. Fossil Fuels Pollute

Not only when burned while creating usable energy but they also pollute during extraction, refining, and transportation.  Plus we can do so many more useful things with natural gas and oil than burn it; we're going to need it for fertilizer and advanced plastics in the years ahead.

2. Foreign Energy is Dangerous

We get much of the energy we use from foreign countries.  Reliance on the energy essential to our way of life from other countries is risky no matter how friendly the countries might be today.  Energy crunches and supply interruptions create energy market turmoil that could lead even a trusted ally to ration energy that once flowed freely.  We also get much of our oil from countries that are outright hostile to the American way of life.  How long can we keep that up?  How many lives are worth sacrificing for cheaper gasoline?

3. Solar Energy is Abundant

Uranium, natural gas, oil, and coal are all energy resources that we're consuming much faster than they can be replaced.  Every year much more energy from the sun hits the Earth than we currently need to maintain our way of life.  We have the technology available to us today if we would decide to pursue significant fossil fuel reductions.  Many times we get caught in debating all the limitations of solar and wind.  I think the image above is a powerful statement to what sort of resource we're wasting as we squabble about the details.  Applying the renewable technologies that we have ready today will become a spring board for the clean energies of tomorrow.  We have to get positive feedback cycle started today.

4. Solar Pays for Itself

The sun and wind send no bills.  The utilities do however and their rates aren't going down.  What sort of payback do you want for your solar investment?  No matter where you live, I can guarantee a faster payback with a solar water heater than with sticking to a traditional water heater.  Same thing goes for a PV system or wind turbine on the electrical side.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Solar Energy Pioneer in Elk Horn, IA


The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has done a series of webisodes highlighting the ways that solar energy is being implemented in different parts of the US.  I was pleasantly surprised to find Mike Howard of Iron Eagle Technologies interviewed at the 2:03 mark of episode 2.  Mike's a real pioneer in his community and is an example for the rest of the country.  In his small town of Elk Horn, IA, he has installed more electric vehicle charging points per capita than anywhere else in the world.  He has the solar PV array shown in the video and a solar water heating system (from VELUX ;-)) installed on his house next door.  We also put a VELUX solar water heater on the public school in town with a few more in the works for this year.  I'm so happy to see Mike get the national attention that he deserves!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tolerating Pollution

Why are we so indifferent to the pollution that comes from our energy supply?  Maybe because we don't think we have a choice.  Maybe we're unaware of it.  Maybe we don't think it's all that bad.  Take a look at this chart and spend a few minutes considering the information in it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Top Excuses for Waiting to Go Solar -- #3

There's not enough sun where I live

If you can get a sunburn where you live, you can make productive use of the sun. Conditions at your specific property may not be suitable for solar energy (due to trees, adjacent structures, etc) but every region of the world has a workable solar resource. The Germans recognized this fact and have become the world leading country of installed PV systems despite a well deserved reputation for having cloudy weather. You'll see from the map above that all of the US has a much better solar resource than that of Germany.  

A basic principle of solar electric production is that colder weather boosts voltage output of modules so a clear cold day in the winter could lead to the greatest output of the year. On the solar water heating side of things, lower ground water temperatures in the north make solar thermal even more attractive from an energy economics angle than in sunny, warmer places.  The bottom line is that solar works everywhere.  Residents of every part of the United States are missing out on a great opportunity if we don't take a hard look at the potential for solar energy sytems in our area.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Top Excuses for Waiting to Go Solar -- #2

It's too expensive

Compared to what? Traditional energy systems will cost you a lot more than you might think. If you pay $100 per month in electricity, you'll spend over $32,000 in 20 years. Over that same period of a time, you'd spend almost $16,000 on natural gas just to heat your home's water.*
These are some numbers to use in comparing the economic cost of a solar energy system. A 3 kW solar PV array would cost around $25,000 to install and offset much of the electricity used in a typical home. A 2 panel solar water heating system would reduce a house's water heating load up to 80% and cost around $9,000. The upfront cost of the systems would be reduced by 30% from the federal tax credit and even further by state incentives. Since fuel costs are free in both of these solar systems, you would essentially fix your energy costs over the life of the systems (20 - 25 years)

Another way to look at cost is to gauge the environmental and health consequences of sticking with fossil fuels. Over half of our nation's electricity comes from coal. While the industry has gone to big efforts to refashion coal's dirty image as "clean", nothing in the coal supply chain is good for the environment, our health, local economies, or is sustainable in any way. Illinois is a coal state and we rank as the 6th worst US state in terms of CO2 emissions caused by our electricity industry. As the evidence mounts and our national focus changes, most of the externalized costs of coal will eventually be re-internalized and become reflected in the price that we pay for our energy. Solar externalizes nothing. You can feel good about your energy choices today when you chose to go solar.

* Calculations used 3% annual escalation on electricity and 5% on natural gas with $40/month spent to heat water.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Top Excuses for Waiting to Go Solar -- #1

Better technology is right around the corner

Living in the era of Moore's Law, we have become accustomed to dramatic technological advances within the span of a few years. Gadgets get smaller, faster, brighter, and lighter before the end of the useful life of our existing gadgets. Companies announce a new system or product and our once shiny new device begins to look embarrassingly dated. Some people look at solar technologies in a similar fashion. Installing them today appears to mean risking missing out on something better that is right around the corner. They don't want to be early adopters and have expensive or clunky panels on our roof. We find however that installed solar systems don't follow the same trends that consumer electronics have been following.

First of all, two very distinct and different forms of solar energy systems are suitable for use on homes today: solar thermal which heats water and solar PV which creates electricity.  Solar thermal systems are over 100 years old and solar PV is 50 year-old technology. Both types of solar systems have proven themselves to provide sufficient energy in every climate, with little maintenance, under stressful environmental conditions, safely, and with no added fuel cost. In the rush to find something better, we forget that solar is a mature technology that can create all the energy we need at a home today.

Part of this line of thought is that improvements in technology will create significant price drops. This is not likely in the near term however. The United States is not a world leader in solar energy and the countries that are, command the lion's share of the available components. These countries (Germany, Japan, and Spain) have seen the advantages of solar energy earlier than us and have taken decisive steps towards growing a solar-based economy. What this means for world prices is that the market has much more demand than available supply. As the US market realizes the value of solar, price pressure will remain high. Not until more manufacturing capacity comes online (a multi-year proposition for such a high tech collection of products) will prices drop significantly.

Even more importantly than stable material costs, effective solar energy systems are much more than solar panels.  There is also a significant materials cost in the balance of system materials that make up a complete unit.  Many of these pieces are commodities (copper, aluminum, glass, steel) that are subject to variable pricing completely independent from the solar industry.

Systems also must be designed, reviewed, and installed by competent people.  Labor and administrative costs are similar across the building industry and form a large part of what someone would pay for a functioning system.  An argument could also be made that this local labor component is actually another positive contribution that a solar economy can bring us. 

Every year we wait to make solar a standard feature of our homes and buildings is another year we miss out on all the incremental cost savings, equity appreciation, and air quality enhancements to be made today.  If not this year, then when?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Top Excuses for Waiting to Go Solar

Making a decisive, positive change in the way you live is always a challenging proposition. The inertia of life fights you and "good reasons" for waiting until tomorrow always seem to justify inaction. This applies to getting back into shape, eating better, spending more time with family, writing that book you've always wanted to write, etc. Faced with big obstacles, the best way to make forward progress is to chip away at manageable chunks until the entire barrier is cleared away. I'm going to get into the most brought up objections to making the move towards solar energy systems for your home or building today over the next few days. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Perspective as a barrier to change

The world appears flat to us in most circumstances. We don't feel as if we’re walking on a big ball or sense the movement of the earth as it spins. The sun rises in the east, traces a path in the sky, and sets in the west in the evening. Ocean tides come in and go out, driven by some unseen force.
We know that all these observations are merely distortions of perspective. The earth is a sphere in constant motion. The sun is our solar system's focal point so in essence one of the only fixed points that we can see with our eyes. The gravitational pull of the sun and the moon interact with the fluid in the ocean to cause the tidal flow.

Our perspective on energy is skewed just as it is in regards to the natural world. We’ve come to think that all useful energy must come from burning something, vigorous motion, or some sort of huge facility. The delicate, subtle or quiet forces around us don't really hold our interest. The solar energy that reaches us here on the surface of the earth is diffused and diluted yet available across the entire planet. It’s predictable. It’s uninterruptible by political or social forces. We have come to realize in the last 50 years that unimaginable quantities of energy are found in the sunlight that brightens our world each day. Fortunately, we live in a time when engineers and idealists have collaborated, and we can now begin to tap into this abundant resource.
Before any change occurs, it’s hard to imagine anything other than the status quo. Gasoline for our cars, coal generation plants for our electricity, and natural gas for heating our homes is what we know. Just as cell phones, the internet, internal combustion engines, and refrigerated food revolutionized our way of life when they came onto the scene, distributed solar energy systems are poised to change our way of life next. Today we ask what anyone ever did with a slide rule. Tomorrow we’ll ask why we needed to pollute our environment just to turn on a light bulb.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Using more natural gas is not the answer

Natural gas seems to be the fossil fuel darling these days.  At one point, it was merely a waste product of oil and coal production but now has reached the point of it being an essential component to our total energy picture.  T. Boone Pickens has a bold strategy to ween ourselves from foreign oil that advocates for a massive investment in wind power so that we can divert the natural gas used in electricity production to automobile use.  His primary motivation seems to be stemming the export of $700 billion of US wealth each year to foreign oil suppliers.  Pickens references the fact that 90% of our current natural gas consumption is met by our North American supply.  His plan to increase the percentage of renewables in our electricity grid is right on, but the idea that we should use more natural gas (even in the short term) is completely wrong. Domestic fossil fuels are no better than foreign ones, and both are leading us down a road to major economic and environmental troubles.

The price of natural gas, like many commodities, is difficult to predict.  A 40-50% swing up or down from one year to the next is common.  Homeowners and businesses need predictable prices to make sound investment decisions as to what sort of heating, cooling, and electrical equipment they should buy.  Natural gas had no real value until the 1970s and prices had remained flat for years.  In the early 1990s with natural gas prices still cheap, natural gas suppliers encouraged the widespread adoption of gas water heaters, gas clothing dryers, and forced air gas furnaces for home heating.  Most American homes use natural gas in some way, 22% of our electricity comes from it, we use it to make fertilizer for growing our food, and some want to shift our transportation system to use more of it.  As domestic demand has exploded so has international consumption of natural gas. Natural gas prices spiked up in 2008, crashed down in 2009 with some major new finds, and is now trending up again as the price of oil reaches $100 per barrel once again.  By committing to wider consumption of natural gas, we're not moving ourselves off the energy price roller coaster.

The solution to this dilemma is to improve the energy efficiency of our homes so that we need less energy.  Stopping air leaks and super-insulation is the first and most economic step.  Once we have high performance structures, a retrofit with better energy systems will be more cost effective.  Start with a solar water heating system for domestic water heating needs.  Then look towards adding a hydronic heating system with the fuel source coming from a combination of geothermal and/or solar supplemented by a natural gas back up unit. Augmenting this heating system with a pellet stove or masonry heater would even further reduce your exposure to rising natural gas prices.  Renewable energy systems such as solar photovoltaics could then meet a building's electricity needs with a smaller up front cost. The key is to have multiple energy options.  Relying on a single fuel source puts your budget at risk to even moderate price escalation.

Our reliance on foreign energy is one of the major problems that we are facing today.  T. Boone Pickens is a man who knows energy and his plan is a great way to bring widespread attention to the fact that the solution is not to be found by drilling more wells.  The wind component of the plan and the assessment of the transportation fuel dilemma are completely admirable parts of his plan.  Unfortunately, relying on natural gas to power the shift from oil could lead to more of the same energy troubles that we are seeing today.  We need to design our future buildings in a smarter way and retrofit our current ones with energy saving technology.  Retaining, consuming, and reusing the energy already hitting our buildings everyday is where we should focus our attention.  Solar energy is a key component to a brighter future.  Let's not cloud our minds or environment further by merely shifting our attention to another fossil fuel.