Jul 25

When we look at where we were just a decade ago, Solar Power has come a long way. The little solar voltaic cells were enough to power a calculator, and I thought of it as saving me $5 every year or two for as long as owned it. In hindsight, it was less about the $5 and more about having a dead calculator when it mattered most.

We’ve come a long way and solar now seems to be hitting the mainstream, getting close to the point where it’s economical to power one’s home from these panels during the day. I specify day as there’s still a bit of an issue with storage of excess power that can bridge the gap until the next day. For now, the excess power you can produce is pushed back to the grid, driving your meter backwards. If solar continues to drop in cost, we will reach a point where the grid can’t absorb this power and local storage, either by home or neighborhood will be needed.

The math isn’t too tough. A 1KW panel enjoying 1500 hours of strong sun each year is going to produce 1500KWHs of power each year, and at 12 cents per KWH, the US average, save the consumer about $180 per year. Many electric companies are also charging for the peak demand, i.e. the top usage during a 15 minute period of time. This is the amount of generating power they need to service you, even though your average usage is far less over the full month. It varies by company, but I’ve seen a demand charge as high as $28 per kW of demand. That solar panel generating 1KW will save you $336 in demand charges over the year, this is in addition to the savings all ready mentioned.

There are a number of variables that come into play for when the tipping point will be reached. Panel cost, cost of financing (i.e. current interest rates), average number of sun-hours per year, cost per kilowatt-hour, and demand charges. Once these are all taken into account, a clever analyst will be able to product a map of the US identifying what areas are currently candidates for profitable solar installations, and which are in line as the price of solar drops.  The cost to produce electricity and natural gas will only continue to rise, and the technology driving solar panels continues to improve.

I hope to hear my grandkids ask me, “they burned stuff to produce power? Why? The sunshine is free!”

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Apr 06

This past Saturday I reprinted a political cartoon that questioned the future of nuclear energy. I got two comments on it, citing the age of the reactors in Japan and implying that nuclear can be safe. Then I received a comment from regular reader and sometimes guest poster, Elle. It was long enough and thoughtful enough to have a post of its own (with her permission of course.) Here’s Elle’s thoughts on this matter:

The basic technology of the boiling water reactors (BWRs) in Japan is from the 1970s and 1980s, with upgrades being constant. The idea for a boiling water reactor was hatched in the 1950s.

Regarding the safety of BWR plants, in my opinion and writing as a retired nuclear engineer, every nuclear engineer who swore by the BWRs’ safety must eat crow (to say the absolute very least, and with great sympathy for what is a horrible situation in Japan). Nuclear engineers are trained in risk assessment and so planning for the worst case. Manuals that stack up to many feet high address everything, step by step and with numerous permutations depending on what was available in a disaster, from flooding to earthquakes to multiple failures to a rogue airplane hitting the containment structure to more. The size of the earthquake and tsunami that afflicted Japan were not unprecedented. Designers should have considered such an earthquake and tsunami, particularly insofar as anticipating a complete loss of power to run the motors that run cooling water pumps. That the diesel generators to be used for backup power were in the basement (so I have read) boggles the mind.

“This is not Chernobyl” is a platitude that ignores the massive devastation that is reality now and will be for years in this part of Japan. I am embarrassed to have said in the past that nuclear power in the U.S. (and by implication, Japan) is safe. Those poor people in Japan, especially the on-site workers who had nothing to do with the design of their plant. Never would I have forced nuclear power on anyone. But now I would not even suggest it without a complete analysis of what went wrong in Japan and the possibility of this going wrong elsewhere in the world. Coal powered plants (the leading source for electric power) have their evils and do their own kind of
pollution. This will continue to have to be weighed against the risk of the pollution of nuclear power.

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Apr 24

It’s been some time since I posted anything on alternative energy. I don’t miss paying $4 per gallon for gas any more than you do, but, true to supply and demand basics, high energy prices prompted the search for alternatives. Now, I ran across a 60 Minutes story titled “Cold Fusion Is Hot Again” and I find the thought interesting. The article doesn’t really go into enough detail to prove or disprove whether the experiments performed were actually cold fusion or another nuclear effect, but any advances in alternative energy sources would be welcome. Sounds like science fiction right now, but it was Arthur C Clarke who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


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Nov 28

As I passed a few gas stations this week and saw $1.89 regular, less than half the cost just a couple months back, and after the initial sense of relief that a tank will less than $30 and not nearly $60, I can’t help but wonder of the longer term impact of this dramatic fall in prices.
One of the unintended consequences of this drop is that the talk of finding alternative energy sources has dropped from being a huge issue early in the recent election campaign to a topic barely discussed. There was also talk during the campaigning of creating ‘green’ jobs based on these alternative energy sources. I understand that there’s a delicate balance, that, at least in the short term, the high gasoline prices was doing far more harm than any future good that would come of it. I just hope we don’t become complacent and assume these low prices will continue indefinitely.

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Oct 06

The allusions to pork in every bill congress votes on often makes me want to swear off bacon for good. I’m sure that Friday’s bailout was no different. 451 pages? That right or was I reading an article that tried to make reference to Farenheight 451? One bit of tastey pork that someone slipped into the $700 Billion Bailout package was an extension of the solar energy credit. Back in June in my post Bad Energy Mojo, I complained that congress let the credits for wind and solar expire. Now it’s back and better than ever, a 30% credit with no limit. More details available from the SanFrancisco Business Times article Massive Solar credit Ok’d with Bailout.
I talked some numbers in April’s Waiting for the Sun, where I offered that a 1KW system would cost about $9500 installed, and give the user $360 worth of power each year. Now, with a 30% credit, the cost is down to $6650, and that $360 of electricity is a 5.4% return, an attractive rate given the alternatives. I remain optimistic that this snowballs into a competitive alternate energy source, ultimately offering the US energy independence.


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