Are there real-world energy alternatives?

If energy use is set to effectively double between 2010 and 2030 (and this blog has tried to make the case that it is), and if most of the fuel to power that energy use is expected to be coal, then we have a problem. Several problems really, ranging from air pollution, mercury and fly-ash to mining fatalities, black lung and CO2 emissions.

But as I hoped to show in my previous post, the infrastructure we’re planning to build does not change the portfolio mix–the percentages of energy we will get from nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, wind and solar farms–and coal–don’t look set to change. For every old coal power plant we retire in the U.S., China and India will build two or three. And for every new nuclear power plant we build throughout the world, the developing world will clamor for more–but that ‘more’ will be delivered by coal.

Kind of a pickle we’re getting into.

In order to change the equation, we would need fuel sources that could be built without long term planning and permitting schedules, sources that could respond to local needs and conditions. It would be ideal if they didn’t have a large footprint, as that is often the cause of planning and permitting delays.

And it would be nice if the energy was clean.

So I offer for your consideration solar power. Not the big photovoltaic solar farms that are beloved by utilities (as it meets their requirements to generate clean power without surrendering ownership or control).  They are just as difficult to permit as other plants. Their electricity has to be piped to customers, often at long distances. A plant the size of a coal-fired plant produces a tenth of the electricity.

Nope. We really have one realistic hope to get us through to 2030 without choking on our own exhaust. And that’s your roof. The roof of your home. The roof of your business. The roof of your church, synagogue, fire department, school and city hall. Rooftop solar produces local power for local consumption. It requires zero additional footprint. The investment is real–but getting cheaper by the month. The fuel is free–and will remain so forever.

I work for a solar power company, a home solar specialist. I am not writing this because I work for a solar power company. I went to work for a solar power company because I wanted to write this.

Solar power produces 0.1% of this country’s electricity. There are roughly 160,000 homes with solar panels on their rooftops–and roughly an equivalent number of offices, warehouses, IKEA or Walmart stores, community centers, etc. with solar.

But solar power drops in price by an average of 7% per year. By 2015, it will be cheaper than electricity provided by a utility for about half of American home owners. It already is cheaper in places like Hawaii, the Netherlands, Aruba and Curacao. Utilities keep raising prices. Solar keeps getting cheaper.

After 2030 we will need to supplement solar–but that’s the subject of another post. For now, while other fuel sources are running frantically on a treadmill just to maintain their percentage of the market, only small-scale solar can effectively serve as a substitute for coal.

3 responses to “Are there real-world energy alternatives?

  1. I don’t disagree with your promotion of local solar generation to supplement the main generation from large scale power plants. In fact, it is by far and away the best option for many remote or off-grid sites. Solar is great for Arizona with its 4000 hours of sunlight a year, but I’m not so sure about northern Europe. I think the gloomiest place could be Campbell Island, reputed to have only about 600 hours. (There in the furious 50s, wind is a lot better option.) The maintenance requirements for solar are a lot lower than for wind.
    However, there are significant hidden costs that need to be built into any analysis. I don’t know what the life of solar panels are, but I have noted significant deterioration of those on the canopy of the local garage since they went up. New cells could last longer but they do have a finite life.
    The costs of batteries (including their replacement) and inverter needs to be accounted for. The power out of inverters isn’t a sinewave and that causes problems for many electronic devices. A similar problem occurs with feedback from variable speed drives or light dimmers that many use to boost efficiency. There is also the voltage & frequency support and standby generation requirements. If the local utility has its powerlines to your place, but you buy no power from it, except for a couple of days a year when there is stormy weather, then they can quite rightly feel that you are sponging from the network and charge accordingly. If there is large scale backfeeding into the grid, then that exacerbates the problems.

    Energy costing is a very tricky area. It is very hard to get right. I suspect many analyses, by the choices of their assumption, just confirm the prejudices of the report writer.

    • Hi Chris,

      Yes, there is an element of horses for courses when talking about solar. It’s definitely more attractive in certain geographic locations and amongst people that are wealthy enough to have large houses and pools, etc.

      Grid issues get exaggerated by utilities, but they do exist. They built that grid with our monthly fees, not investor capital, with utility commissions approving rate hikes to provide the capital. So I feel little sympathy for them.

      • Direct current can be prdouced from solar energy.Solar cells are also called photovoltaic cells. Solar cells convert the light into direct current electricity, which is the same kind of electricity you would find in a standard battery. Once the energy is converted to electricity, it can be stored in a battery or sent through an inverter which changes the electricity to alternating current, the type of electricity that powers everyday electric items.

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