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!”

written by Joe \\ tags: , ,

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.

written by Joe \\ tags: , ,

Apr 02

The recent tragic situation in Japan may make us rethink just how safe nuclear is. Is the risk really worth it?

written by Joe \\ tags: , ,

Oct 01

I was talking to someone who was considering using the VOIP (Voice Over IP) offered by their cable company. She was concerned about how much the modem would cost her to run. I came to realize that she was on a tight budget and was wondering how much it would add to her electric bill.
I didn’t know off hand how much power a modem draws so I started to think about a 100W bulb, and figured we can scale from there. If a bulb were left on 24/7, it would use about 72KWH of power in a month as there are 720 hours in a 30 day month. At her rate of 15 cent per KWH, this one 100W bulb would cost $10.80 to run full time each month. It turns out a modem is 10W or less, so it’ll take about $1/mo to run.
This exercise got me thinking. I bought a device a few months back to help me add up the current I use in my basement as I was wiring it room by room. It’s called Kill A Watt and available at Home Depot or on line.

The first thing I did was to find a power supply plugged into an outlet in my office with nothing attached. 4 watts! Now, I can afford the 40 cents per month, but how foolish is this, there’s nothing even plugged in, it powered a hard drive that’s now in a closet but I forgot to unplug the supply till now. Next, I checked how much power one of my old Macs was drawing. I was glad I use it remotely, no monitor, saving that power. But I found it uses 180W. About $19 per month. I need to rethink whether it’s worth it to keep this guy running.

Last, I’ve been replacing the incandescent bulbs with CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light bulb). Most rooms in our house have 4-6 in-ceiling cans that hold a 65W spotlight type bulb. The CFL replacement is 15W and puts out the same amount of light. So, anytime we are in a lit room, we’re saving 200W of power. Of course, during the day, it’s good to pull the shades/blinds and use natural light, but when we need to turn them on, it’s less power and less heat generated. How many power bricks do you have plugged in that are just keeping warm and burning your money? Have you gone to CFLs yet?


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Jun 26

This disaster will haunt us for some time, I’m sure. This cartoon caught my eye, as it wasn’t too far back that “Drill, Baby, Drill” was the mantra.

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