Unintended consequences of the solar revolution

In 2014, for the second year in a row, solar power was the largest source of new energy in the US. Solar power delivered by utilities doubled last year and the growth is accelerating. Last week, Tesla made an announcement that is likely to change the market for clean energy dramatically. Tesla’s Power Wall now makes it possible in practical terms for home users of solar energy to exit the power grid entirely at a price that is reasonably attainable for mass use.

We are approaching the tipping point beyond which our fossil fuel consumption in the US begins a rapid, permanent decline. Just as with cigarettes and sugar sodas, the oil and coal industries are likely to continue making serious money on the long tail of slowly declining developing world demand, but their reign at the center of the global economy is coming to an end.

This is exciting news that promises to solve some of the most frustrating and frightening policy challenges we have faced over the past generation. Achieving the best possible results from this technological revolution will require us to recognize some crucial realities. Every major change in our landscape creates new problems. For all its promise, the dawn of the renewable energy era could be a miserable mess if we fail to recognize and adapt to the new demands of this very different landscape.

Shedding our dependence on fossil fuels offers us a world of radically cheaper energy while solving stubborn challenges around climate change, air pollution, national security, and even the preservation of public land. In exchange we get a new set of problems to solve, every bit as complex and dangerous as those that came before. Mastering those challenges early means maximizing the template of benefits offered by this technology. The culture that accomplishes this feat first could enjoy a powerful leadership role in the world.

Mass adoption of solar energy spawns a range of fresh problems in terms of pollution (yes, pollution), social policy, and economics. We have no generally recognized solutions for any of these issues. In fact, we aren’t even discussing them at a policy level.

Solar energy is clean in the sense that it produces no waste product in the course of generating energy. However, the production of solar panels creates significant potential for pollution. Use of solar for utility-grade energy production creates land and water use issues. And most troubling of all, the batteries which are critical for mass-adoption of solar energy carry the potential to be an ecological nightmare.

It is that scenario of mass-adoption that offers the most exciting potential economic promise and the most frightening potential harm. The process of mining, refining, and disposing of the materials in these batteries has the potential to make fossil fuels look like mothers’ milk. On the positive side, Tesla is just one example of a company who is way out in front of those issues, addressing them with plans at every stage of the process. On the down side, as this technology spreads into true mass adoption you can bet that producers will emerge who are not as thorough as Tesla.

But that’s just the ecological picture. The challenges we face in politics and culture may be harder to address. Our power grid is a public service that we largely take for granted. For almost a hundred years energy has been delivered to almost every home in the developed world at low cost, with relatively few interruptions. Energy delivery is perhaps the most successful public/private partnerships in history.

Power delivery, especially in the US, operates like insurance. The economics behind our network of generating facilities, power lines, and support infrastructure depends on the idea that virtually everyone is connected and invested. Emerging solar technologies deliver two very significant disruptions to this system. For the first time ever a meaningful number of customers can potentially opt-out of the system entirely. And existing customers have the chance now to effectively reverse the deal, getting paid to pump electricity back into the grid in a manner that break the system.

Rising adoption of home solar units will inevitably undermine the logic behind the power grid. If history is any guide, we are likely to reach a crisis in the utility industry before we even recognize this dynamic. Utility companies are engineered to operate with massive fixed capital and massive fixed cost on miniscule profit margins. It is not clear at this point how many customers the utilities can lose without facing collapse. The entire concept is so new that we have done almost nothing to explore the matter.

Will we continue to need public utilities in their present form? Maybe, maybe not. What looms over us if home solar use develops as expected is a dangerous and all-too familiar gap-scenario. Wealthier households could shed their dependence on, and their political interest in, our network of utilities. Meanwhile the economics of centralized power generation becomes unsustainable – leaving the less affluent quite literally in the dark.

If we fail to recognize the contours of this changing landscape there is a very real prospect in the not-too distant future that we will face a miserable choice. Either allocate public money for massive public bailouts of the energy industry or tolerate mass blackouts that only affect the poor. It will not happen tomorrow, but you can be certain it will come sooner than we expect.

Emerging developments in solar energy are some of the best news for humanity in the modern era. Getting the best outcome from any innovation requires us to recognize and adapt to the disruption it inevitably brings. With solar, those disruptions are increasingly weird, with potential to wreak havoc on low income Americans.

None of the challenges we face from solar are as daunting as the ones we’ve conquered in previous generations, but they will hit us faster than we expect. If we fail to establish some policy guidelines at the state and federal level, the growth of solar power threatens to fracture the economic and political model that has made cheap power available to everyone. Honestly confronting the challenges of solar alongside its benefits – early – will be a key to a brighter American future.

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Economics, Environment, Evolution
48 comments on “Unintended consequences of the solar revolution
  1. Intriguing, thoughful post, Chris.

    I grew up with Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), and given my conservative, Burkean proclivities, I am sentimentally attached to them. (The rumble of my Indian Roadmaster’s Stage I exhaust is ear candy!) But in point of fact, ICEs really are Rube Goldberg machines when it comes to the efficient delivery of power and torque, particularly for personal transportation applications. Electric motors are superior in every way, much as it pains me to say it.

    Battery technology is of course the current limiting factor, but it’s improving constantly. In my lifetime the thermal efficiency of ICEs used in autos and scoots has nearly tripled, and since the turn of the last century, that improvement has been tenfold. But much like Moore’s Law, ICEs are approaching the point of diminishing returns. We aren’t going to see another tenfold increase in ICE efficiency.

    On the other hand, we are just at the dawn of the battery tech era – we will see a tenfold increase in battery efficiency. Think about that for a moment. The present state of the art gives an electric vehicle a 100 mile range (in real world conditions). Multiple that by ten, and imagine a 1,000 mile range per charge. Somewhere in the near future we’re going to be poking ICEs with a fork, because they’ll be done.

    For a cool glimpse into the near future, see:

    And here’s Dan Neil *raving* about the Tesla Model S P85D:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/tesla-model-s-the-future-is-here-1428086202

    Yeah, Daddy likes. 🙂

    As for me, as much as I love my rolling Barcalounger, a.k.a. the Roadmaster, I don’t really enjoy having my right thigh baked to a delicate crunch by the rear cylinder when waiting at interminable Houston stoplights during rush hour traffic in Houston summer heat. If Ducati would build an all-electric version of the Srambler, I’d buy it as a commute scoot in a heartbeat.

    • 1mime says:

      Seriously off topic, but have you seen The World’s Fastest Indian with Anthony Hopkins? I loved this movie.

      • fiftyohm says:

        Absolutely fantastic movie! And it was based on a true story.

        I ride Triumphs, though…

      • 1mime says:

        But, you are a “gentleman” biker, so the story must still resonate. I don’t ride but loved the story, and, of course, Hopkins is always stellar. He reminded me somewhat of the roles that Robert Duvall plays. Sparse, earthy, devil-may-care, his own man.

      • Yep, great flick. I ride Trumpets, too, fiftyohm. 🙂 I traded in my Bonnie when I got the Roadmaster; I’m regretting it already. Shoulda kept it and turned it into a bobber project bike. Oh, well.

        For something just as cool, but a little more current, see:

        https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/2014/05/02/indian-chief-elnora-dual-sport-build-cannon-ball-centennial-ride/

        Robert Pandya is the most interesting man in the world, and Elnora lives on, now as a salt flat racer:

      • 1mime says:

        Yes, what a nice tribute to Baker. I know “zilch” about motorbikes but there is a lot of romance in the Indian bike history. The Hopkins movie helped me realize just how ardent bikers are for their sport and especially, their equipment. Another world. Hope Pandya has a successful, satisfying journey with his “Elnora”.

  2. Kudos, GOPlifer, for a reasonably well thought out essay. You have indeed identified issues that will arise, but you may not have given adequate consideration of solutions that are already being discussed, such as micro-grids (as only one example). I’m no expert, but I do see the entrepreneurial opportunity for LOTS of potential solutions to the problems that this disruption of centralized monopoly power generation will certainly bring.

    I would also question the size of the box you defined for the economic/business model used by IOUs (investor-owned utilities). One point I take issue with is your characterization of the profit margin as somehow minimal. Dude, the people who work in those monopolies make genuinely middle-class wages and their execs make megamillions/year. Shareholders enjoy generous dividends usually.

    This disruption will first force those corporations to come to grips with the same economic realities the GOP has foisted upon the rest of America by instituting business friendly (labor UNfriendly) tax policies that incentivize the off-shoring of so much manufacturing capacity and jobs.

    Welcome to MY world.

    Next, I will call attention to the fact that these monopoly utilities have known for YEARS that this disruption was inevitable. How much innovation have they been willing to push? Not much that I can tell.

    Instead, as a poignant case study is continuing (or a case that is quite worthy of formal study), Arizona’s two biggest utilities Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project (one and IOU, the other a quasi-governmental agency unto itself) have instead aimed, with laser-focus, millions of dollars of their corporate treasuries at fighting the disruption by stroking lawmakers and elected utility regulators.

    I’ll digress and again thank you for laying out the situation more thoroughly than I’ve seen from any Republican lifers in Arizona. Because in Arizona, APS and SRP OWN the GOP controlled Corporation Commission and state legislature. That, in my opinion, is why no Republican in Arizona has been so bold as to even admit that the disruptive technological innovation is inevitable and must be adapted to.

  3. lomamonster says:

    There is an insidious problem that needs to be addressed immediately concerning the power grid as it presently exists, and that is the issue of what has been designated “the smart meter”. It is poisoning all consumers of electricity basically two ways that are measurable at present and intolerable in terms of national security, safety, and health. The wi-fi emissions are bad enough, but the real problem is the switching ampllfier used to convert from 240 volts down to house power. It is causing a massive output of “dirty” power which creates a grid within the home of lethality beyond belief.

    Here is an article from a P.H.D. that explains some of the symptoms experienced by people based on relatively short exposure time to smart meters. I can attest to many of these symptoms myself after just a little over two years with smart meters here in the Hill Country, and I fully intend to go down to the electric Co-0p on Monday with the intention to “opt out” of the smart meters, go back to the analog meters, and then see if my symptoms decrease in their intensity. If they do not let me do just that for some unspecified mumbo jumbo, my next move will be to start organizing a class action suit to resolve the matter. I have many friends and neighbors who are experiencing ill health all of a sudden for no apparent reason other than the appearance of smart metering about two years ago here.

    http://emfsafetynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Symptoms-after-Exposure-to-Smart-Meter-Radiation.pdf

    A cursory examination of the problem online reveals that it is especially evident in California and may come to be the largest fight in the history of the electric utility business.

    Please do your own examination of where the data stands at present, but I can tell you that we are currently becoming an ill nation due to this corporate boondoggle. We need to return to analog meters and physically read them each month like in the past to be safe(r).

    • lomamonster says:

      Here is another link with supporting data that is somewhat understandable to explain my above concerns.

      http://eon3emfblog.net/?p=2180

    • goplifer says:

      There is nothing about those meters that could be contributing to a health condition. The hysteria around smartmeters upsets me a lot.

      There are many people out there suffering from very real conditions that are hard to diagnose and difficult to treat, like lupus and fibromyalgia who get convinced that gluten or smart meters or radio waves are causing their condition. Not to mention people who are suffering from anxiety or other issues. Feeding this paranoia is actually kind of cruel. It’s not as bad as refusing to vaccinate kids, but it lives in the same neighborhood.

      If you’re having troubling symptoms, get some real help and keep the smart meter.

      • lomamonster says:

        Your argument, although reasonable, is not very convincing and not based upon any links to safety studies. Do some more homework and get back to me on that. Believe me, the last thing that I would ever want to do is something cruel in advancing some kind of conspiracy theory. Show me some science…

      • fiftyohm says:

        loma – As a point of fact, the onus is on you to show some “science”. What you posted as ‘evidence’ is junk science pure and simple. That doesn’t count. (See below.). 92 participants in a ” study” that all self-reported. Good grief. When I checked the pedigree of the “journal”, I have to tell you I was not surprised – even a little.

        Well, it was on the internet, but still…

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      My problem with smart meters is that they are not smart. They tell me nothing. If the power goes out, mine doesn’t say when it will come back on.

      I once had the local electric power company, then called HL&P, as a customer. I was selling mid-size computers. Back then, they wanted something like a smart meter so they could know when and why people used their power. So if someone insisted on drying clothes mid day in August, they could charge that person a premium for using power during a time of peak demand. Kinda Uber-esque.

    • Stephen says:

      The experts say everything. And usually what the person or organization who is paying wants to hear. That is why real research has rigorous method , documentation and is independently confirmed multiple times.

      Most of what you wrote about is gobbledygook. While I work in a lab I studied power dispatching and substation , transmission maintenance for two years and earn a certificate. I am insatiably curious.

    • flypusher says:

      I’ve got a smart meter and wifi at home. I’m perfectly healthy.

    • fiftyohm says:

      I’ve been designing switching power supplies for over 30 years. You are sitting next to a pile of them right now. There’s a huge one in that desktop. There’s one in that supply for your monitor. There are several in your laptop. There are in your TV. (And BTW have always been since the very first set!) They are everywhere. They are ubiquitous.

      There is absolutely no, zero, nada, ziltch, evidence that radio frequency emissions from SMPSs pose a hazard to anyone or anything. None. Nor is there any know mechanism as to how it *could*. And to suggest that the tiny amount, barely measurable really, from smart meters is an issue? I really, really hope this is the silliest thing I hear this week, but anything can happen, I guess…

      You are joking, right?

      • fiftyohm says:

        My apologies for the typos in the above post. I’d rewrite it, but you folks have picked them out already.

    • fiftyohm says:

      And this just in: the referenced publication, “Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine”, is on Beall’s list of “predatory publishers”! Now really – does this surprise anyone?

    • Doug says:

      “the real problem is the switching ampllfier used to convert from 240 volts down to house power. ”

      Your house has three wires coming in: two 120 volt “hot” wires and one neutral wire. Your normal outlets and lighting use one hot leg and the neutral for 120 volts. Your electric range, A.C., dryer, etc. will use both hot legs for 240 volts. There is no power conversion done at the residential level.

      • fiftyohm says:

        I think this was in reference, though poorly worded, to the converter that supplies the electronics in the meter itself.

    • Creigh says:

      loma, I’m a skeptic also on the connection between smart meters and health problems, but if I believed in it as you do I’d look into switching to solar power and batteries, based on DC instead of AC. Thanks to the RV industry, you should be able to get 12VDC fixtures and appliances you need. It would not be cheap to convert, but probably less expensive than doctors and lawsuits.

      • fiftyohm says:

        Except for washers, dryers, A/Cs, water heaters, TV sets of some size, and the list goes on. Problem is that to get 120 VAC from batteries takes a switching inverter. And horrors! They generate some EMF. Well, so does your hair dryer. Guess one can live in a cave…

        Don’t fall for that bullshit, loma. You’re smarter than that.

    • Anse says:

      When the smart meters were first rolling out, one of my neighbors insisted that it was a conspiracy to give the government the ability to manipulate how much power you use. He was sure that a day would come when the gummint would turn your air conditioner off on days when the grid was strained. I guess I could have foreseen new twists on the hysteria.

  4. stephen says:

    I work in the electric power industry. Our CEO is already planning on dealing with this disruptive technology. As he put it you still will need someone to coordinate power production and consumption. It is the same old problem as before you have to get those who have power to those who do not. And that is a changing dynamic flux all of the time. That is a niche we could fill.

    We have a solar farm we are experimenting with and use green technology such as burning the methane produce from the county dump next to us.

    We are a zero discharge plant and use reclaim water (treated sewage effluent) for cooling and other plant processes. This is nutrient rich, warm and will grow algae very well. A company experimenting with turning algae into diesel fuel ran an experiment with our cooling tower discharge.

    Wind power is being used all over the world and companies who do that have stolen some of our technicians to work in that industry. Lockheed Martin is reported to be working on a working fusion reactor light and compact enough to power a plane. They think they are only about a decade away from it.

    The battery new technology is certainly a key for solar power and both solar cell and battery cost are rapidly falling. We live in exciting times. The answer is going to be all of the above. Which is good as it will prevent monopolies from forming.

    As far as pollution goes half of our plant is pollution control and over the last thirty years pollution standards have greatly been increased and we have always found a way to meet them economically. That is part of what I do at work. The biggest threat is not savvy or money to contain and or eliminate pollution but the political will to do that rather than pollute. The pollution problem of battery or solar cell manufacturing can be solved if the government does it’s job through regulation and enforcement to demand that. Unregulated markets do a poor job linking the externals to pricing mechanisms.

    Science fiction writers have been predicting for decades of only a few people actually doing any real work of producing any of the goods and services needed. And the only thing of real value would be creativity. Which makes me wonder if what Lifers wrote about of a universal minimal income provided by the government might actually come to pass.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      Stephen, sounds like your employer is forward-thinking. And I like that you think that regulation is what will control pollution. I do, too.

    • John says:

      Hey Stephen – im interested in starting up a solar farm myself – might you spend a few minutes talking with me if you could. I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

  5. Bobo Amerigo says:

    Thinking about the consequences of opting off the grid reminds me of some consequences of providing more television channels.

    Profs in Comm 101 at UT were terribly excited about the benefits of a channel for every interest. It would be wonderful. Nobody talked about — perhaps few envisioned it — that multiple channels would produce multiple versions of facts. When it comes to individual facts, we jumped the shark when Fox said NASA didn’t land on the moon.

    If whole neighborhoods opt off the grid, will they become insular about other things? Chop down lovely old trees? Look down on neighbors that don’t go solar? Think gates may be necessary?

    Electric utilities are like insurance but like insurance companies. Because their products are required, they have no sense of urgency when it comes to meeting the future needs of their customers. They don’t have to. Instead, they resort to laws to block solar. Heck, they should be leading the solar parade.

    Me, I’m like fly. I’m so ready to leave the grid. I hope to be able to invest in solar panels some day. And then live long enough to enjoy them. 🙂

    • 1mime says:

      Leavin’ the grid….ME TOO, Bobo! In fact, I’m ready to give Costa Rica a whirl….There’s more than one way to be “off the grid” (-:

      Seriously, I would consider living there part of the year, if for no other reason than to get totally the heck away from the American political scene and experience a culture whose priorities more closely mirror my own. Costa Rica gave up its army in favor of plowing those dollars back into the country’s infrastructure with heavy emphasis on the environment, health care, and education of its people. Defense (as proposed in the current GOP proposal) takes more than half of America’s entire budget. Think of the things America could do for healthcare, education, infrastructure if the Defense budget really had to compete with America’s basic needs. I know, “heresy”, but, that’s how I feel. There’s something wrong when emerging countries have figured out the importance of investing in renewable forms of energy, and American Congressmen (not all) and businesses are fighting it tooth and nail.

  6. Hi Chris,
    Batteries – not much harmful in a Lithium ion battery – and a lot of copper which means that it will be re-cycled
    Here in NZ we don’t have any subsidies or mandated behavior so the power companies are only paying 1/3 “sell” price for solar power
    Batteries will enable us to use what we make – and if the power companies keep being a pain to go off grid

    I don’t think that is optimum – best would be to use the grid as a battery – especially here with our large percentage of hydro power
    But it’s better than letting the power companies ride all over us

  7. 1mime says:

    On the economics issue, I am reminded of the town in which I grew up which developed its own utility in order to have a revenue stream to finance public projects. This helped keep property and sales taxes lower than they might have been if the city fathers hadn’t taken this step. The city was certainly ahead of its time in seeing electricity generation as a revenue source for operations. Flash forward and the same city is offering solar incentives for installation and operation though they are not yet allowing consumers to accrue energy credits for pacticing wise energy consumption (hours of use, etc) or to “sell back” energy. This will come, I’m sure, but at least the same wisdom that motivated the first decision (owning the public electricity venue) is moving forward with solar.

    Traditional energy providers may reluctantly move to other renewable energy sources, but move they will, or die. As Viking and Lifer indicated, one change begets another.

    • stephen says:

      Orlando where I lived did this in the early 20th century. It owns and runs an Electric and Water Utility company. And this has lower the taxes of the citizens of Orlando. And we too are encouraging solar panels for businesses and homes. Staid old government is often ahead of the curve with new technologies.

      • 1mime says:

        Yep, these young pups up in Congress could learn a thing or two if they weren’t so busy talking! People then had to figure things out the hard way, which wasn’t always bad. The best part was they were focused on doing something that would benefit all, not just “some” which seems to be the way things are done today.

        I enjoyed learning about your work. It must be gratifying.

  8. Steve Kech says:

    I think widespread adoption of solar to satisfy home needs will free up utility-scale generating capacity so that California can have a cheap supply of energy to spur desalination . Cheap solar begets cheap water.

    • 1mime says:

      Cheap solar begets cheap water, begets cheap food, begets more money to use for other things…..The opportunities are endless.

  9. 1mime says:

    Thanks for broadening our discussion beyond the normal political chatter. I needed a distraction from the absurdities of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. Unintended consequences or not, renewable energy is here, and the attendant issues of pollution, social policy, and economics will evolve out of necessity. We have a wonderful opportunity to responsibly “manage” the advancement as it rolls out and becomes more mainstream. We don’t have to “re-invent” the entire process as others are blazing the trail ahead of us (See Costa Rica, link below.) Let us hope that those who are responsible for regulation are as visionary as those who are creating these wonderful new forms of renewable energy. (present Congress excluded (-: )

    As to the unintended consequences you describe, they pale in comparison to the benefits. Industry will adapt (robotics, technology) and people will as well (new job skills – hopefully, new behavior). The environment will be better, and policies and regulations will emerge to ensure responsible behavior from producers and users. There will be the normal outcry from those who resent regulations of any kind, a learning curve on responsible policy development, but the irony is that there will be an opportunity for greater personal choice. Batteries will become safer as competition forces other manufacturers to follow and/or challenge Tesla’s dominance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could dramatically shrink our landfills? Remove unsightly telephone poles, improve air quality, reduce expenditures to heat and cool buildings re-directing income to other family and business needs? And, most important, mitigate the negative effects to our environment offering long-term sustainable planet utilization.

    Examples abound of cities, states, countries and utilities who are offering customers options for their electrical supply, and making it affordable to participate. Be it hydro-electric, geo-thermal, wind, solar or battery, (and/or a combination thereof), or, whatever else the creative genius of man develops, there will be more options than ever before. For those who are concerned about global warming, this can’t happen fast enough. For deniers, they will ultimately embrace new forms if for no other reason than it will be save them money. This will be the “real” trickle-down economics lauded by conservatives.

    As for how the poor will be impacted, they are probably more responsible users of electricity than others due to financial exigency. They mostly rent, which disincentivizes them to invest in property improvement, but their property owner may take advantage of programs that make the property more marketable – or not, but the poor have many needs, electricity may be one of their lesser concerns when stacked up against food, shelter, and health care.

    Exciting times! I have watched with great interest the commitment and experience of Costa Rica. As America slogs into the future of renewable energy, we can learn much from our neighbor to the South.

    “With nearly 30% of the landmass held in reserve, Costa Rica produces over 90% of its electricity through renewable means such as hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.  Furthermore, the country’s local food production is abundant, rendering costs for basic items extremely affordable for everyone. Costa Rica’s government, committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021, has launched attractive incentives for conservation and sustainable development projects.

    http://www.unep.org/forests/Portals/142/docs/Costa_Rica.pdf

    • vikinghou says:

      Good post mime. It’s important to add that certain members of Congress are seeking to remove the tax subsidies supporting renewable energy development while (surprise, surprise) maintaining the lavish support enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry—especially the royalty-free extraction of hydrocarbons from Federal lands and waters. The good news is that, despite such efforts, solar is becoming so efficient that subsidies won’t be necessary. Solar energy is a young industry with a steep innovation curve.

  10. vikinghou says:

    I commented about this in an earlier thread but it bears repeating here. American utilities are having problems adjusting to this new paradigm.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-08-22/homegrown-green-energy-is-making-power-utilities-irrelevant

    And they’re starting to fight back, particularly in Hawaii.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/business/energy-environment/solar-power-battle-puts-hawaii-at-forefront-of-worldwide-changes.html

    Long term this is a losing battle in as solar technologies continue to improve at such a rapid pace. As fly said, generating power from numerous independent sources is better for national security than relying on huge centralized power stations.

    Today the biggest opportunities for solar are in the developing world where a large electricity generation and transmission infrastructure does not exist. For example, in parts of Africa and India, generating electricity with solar panels is now cheaper than using diesel generators.

  11. RobLL says:

    I think old batteries may be less of a concern than you think. Second life for most larger arrays (even Prius hybrid ones) will be some sort of stationary use. After that it likely will be fairly simple to recycle the materials when they finally give out on secondary use. And do note that Consumer Reports noted that a 150,000 mile Prius functioned within 1% of original specs, those batteries may be pretty sturdy.

  12. flypusher says:

    Thanks very much for this. A few comments on things not covered:

    1) I definitely think there is more solar in our future, but I don’t think it’s equally feasible in all regions of the country. Here in Houston, absolutely, with all the sun we get. Especially when you consider that most of the times we’re putting a big demand on the grid, those hot sunny afternoons in July, August, September when we crank up the ACs, are prime times for collecting those sun rays. I can’t see as much use in the more northern climes.

    2) Barring some huge battery breakthrough, solar and wind are very good for power consumed on site, but not so good for powering transportation. So I see fossil fuel use shifting there.

    3) I think we may have to consider the grid the way we consider public education, as a common good that everyone needs to chip in for to maintain, regardless of whether you benefit directly or indirectly.

    4) Double plus good on Telsa for considering all the consequences of battery manufacture, operation, disposal/recycling, but I share your concern about other companies operating with much less foresight. So although it may cause some here to break out in a few hives, dare I say that here is your proper place for some government regulations?

    5) One big upside to collecting sunshine and using the power on site- much less loss of power via resistance through the power lines. Also from a security standpoint, it’s much, much harder for terrorists to disrupt power across a city if it’s generated in so many independent places.

    • goplifer says:

      Very interesting note on point 1 – The country with the most intensive current use of solar energy is Germany. Their lowest latitude lines up roughly with Lake Superior.

      Mostly agree on everything else.

      • flypusher says:

        Didn’t know that about Germany, and I realize I didn’t word that the way I should have. Not that people in Wisconsin can’t benefit from solar, but rather people in places like Texas and Arizona will get more bang for the solar buck with current technology, so Wisconsin needs more backup/supplementary energy sources.

        But I am so rooting for Tesla and their battery research. Sounds like a good place to invest if you want to vote with your $ for clean energy and ethical business practices.

      • 1mime says:

        Better than fossil fuel stocks for long term growth, that’s for sure (-:

      • EJ says:

        Germany spends enormous amounts on subsidising our solar industry and as a result we do have the current best in the world. I assume the readership of this site is well aware of the moral hazards created by entire industries living off subsidies.

        From an engineering standpoint, by far the most difficult thing Germany’s facing during our current renewables buildup is the building of a smart grid. The sun is always out somewhere, and it’s always windy somewhere, but getting that solar and wind power from where it’s produced to where it’s needed is an enormously complex piece of infrastructure which is vastly different from the current static networks. While the concept of being able to generate your own power and opt out of the system may be a libertarian dream, the engineering infrastructure that enables it requires immense public investment.

    • 1mime says:

      Really great post, Fly. I believe America will sort out what works best where….be it solar, geo-thermal, hydro, etc….Excellent points. Adapt, evolve, or else. The best part is America doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. We can learn from other countries that have already made the commitment to new forms of energy.

      • flypusher says:

        Thanks 1mime. Also I’m hoping for the technology to be getting cheaper ASAP. I’d love to have some solar panels on my roofs, and front of the house is especially well suited to catch a lot of rays. But the cost benefit ratio isn’t quite there yet. However, the house is paid off this fall, so then I can start saving towards it. But replacing the rest of the old windows is the top priority, and there’s energy savings to be had there too.

    • 1mime says:

      Transportation applications of solar…..things are percolating in that sphere as well….

      http://techcrunch.com/2014/09/24/the-first-four-seater-solar-powered-vehicle-hits-the-u-s-road/

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