Is Solar Power a Viable Energy Solution?
Yes, as it’s boundlessly renewable and pollution-free – problems which our current use of fossil fuels continually perpetuate. Moreover, the cost for this technology is rapidly decreasing as the science behind it keeps on advancing. Those who adopt it – as I have – will experience a considerably quick return on investment.
When it comes to alternative energy, we’ve come a long way. Check out this article to learn how technology is changing the future of survival.
Technological Advances and the Future of Survival
Technology and survivalists have come a long way in creating independent sustainable lifestyles. Since feelings developed that our government leaders were not working in our interests, savvy people began exploring ways to become independent from bureaucracies and political domination. Many wanted to just be left alone to live their lives free of draconian restrictions and oppression. They admired the Amish and Mennonite communities who dedicated their lives to living off the grid and operating independent of government influence and direction.
Most of us accept the need for government to provide geographic security but want political leaders who work for the people, not for sources of money and influence. This has not happened as desired, so living off the grid away from those who live off the “system” has become a driving force in our new alternative society.
Small business entrepreneurs felt the same pull and began designing tools and devices for self-generating power, water, and food. About 10 years ago, the solar industry began ramping up to make homes energy independent. The belief was that the best way to counter the declining condition of the national power grid is to make each home its own power generation station—a micro grid if you will.
My Experiences with Solar Energy
I liked the idea and invested in solar back in 2006. At the time, 140 watt panels were the standard, although 200 watt panels were being introduced. However, 200 watt panels—called “modules” today—were not readily available. So I ended up with a 7.4 kW solar power system using 140 watt panels. This takes a lot of roof space, and the investment wasn’t cheap. I invited six solar installation companies to bid on the job. The responses went from $40,000 up to $90,000 and included all sorts of bells and whistles that I didn’t really need.
I went back to the bidders and requested they tell me how much their job would cost as a total package and how many watts I would receive for each dollar spent. Two bidders immediately backed out explaining that they decided to focus on commercial installs only—likely to find customers who weren’t as knowledgeable in evaluating proposals. One didn’t even reply. Of the three remaining bidders, two were close on their prices, and one was selected.
The installed panels were arranged into two arrays with a DC-to-AC inverter connected to each array. When this “beefy” power generation system began producing electricity, my electric bill dropped significantly and my cost reduction was allocated to payback on my investment.
I calculated 11 years for payback, but each year the utility company raised the electrical rates for homeowners. So I recalculated payback each year based on the new rates; payback time steadily shrunk until effective payback occurred in year six. I wrote a book on my experience and gave “going solar” presentations at libraries, community centers, and service club meetings. The acceptance of solar grew exponentially as the public realized the value in this power generation technology. This was a huge market, and solar became the darling industry for thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs. Federal and state rebates were introduced to encourage homeowners to make the plunge into clean solar energy. And many did.
Innovation brought rapid advances in technology. The analog meters that monitored electrical use were replaced with digital meters—although I missed watching my meter run backwards as my system created power for the grid—and people with solar quickly realized the value in managing electrical energy use.
As better solar panel material became available, the watts generated by these modules increased steadily. Soon 200 watt panels were standard, then 240 watt, 255 watt, 280 watt, then 300+ watts. Industry was finding ways to get ever more power out of each square foot of solar panel. Today you’ll find 365 watt panels offered by solar vendors.
The Rise of Solar Power
Technology and buyer acceptance drove the cost per watt down significantly. From the $7.50/watt I paid in 2006 to under $6/watt in 2011 and to less than $1/watt in 2015—just 64¢ a watt according to Renewable Energy World.
In addition, micro-inverters were introduced with dedicated inverters mounted under each solar module. AC from the micro-inverters was routed to a distribution box connected to the power distribution panel at the side of each house. My neighbor has this design and has three 10 amp strings leading off his roof to the power grid connection.
The Need for Alternative Energy
However, as industry and consumers became more knowledgeable about electricity and the vulnerability of our antiquated electrical grid, people began to worry about how to still have electricity if the grid failed and power was not available. Inverters are designed to isolate the solar panels from the power grid to prevent solar-generated electricity from getting out and putting power line workers at risk.
So when the grid went down, solar arrays did not provide usable electricity. Nevertheless, many solar system owners wanted to be able to use solar whenever the sun was shining. I was one of those who pushed for this capability in a safe environment.
The Problem with Solar Energy
Solar any time, any place was missing from self-sufficiency protocols. Solutions were designed and in prototype, but the utility industry and government supporters staunchly refused to let inverter manufacturers offer this feature, feeling this would encourage too many people to avoid the local power grids as long as the sun was shining. This could significantly reduce utility company’s revenue while still requiring power companies to provide electricity 24/7 based on consumer demand.
The problem centered on the huge ramp-up of electrical demand from the grid once the sun was not producing DC in the solar panels and homeowners still wanted power. They typically drew it from the local power grid. This caused a huge need to bring non-renewable power generators quickly on line based on consumer demands for electricity.
How Fukushima Changed the Game
This was a point of contention between homeowners, industry, and government until the March 2011 9.0 earthquake and 49-foot tsunami took down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and caused damages that are still being felt today. Over 16,000 people died, over 100,000 people were evacuated, and radioactive water has polluted the Pacific waters from Japan all the way east to the North American coast. Electrical power went out for over 600,000 Japanese citizens—and stayed out for many.
The Japanese power company TEPCO immediately instituted rolling blackouts to ease the electrical situation. However, solar power was available all along to thousands of Japanese solar home owners. They just couldn’t access it without the power grid. These people demanded the government allow them to use their solar panels to create electricity since power grids were still out or unreliable.
The Japanese government gave in. Inverter manufacturers in Japan had a ready solution—the independent-operator function—a design that could provide up to 1500 watts of AC power to one or more electrical sockets when local grid power was out. Kyocera and Mitsubushi Electric both quickly introduced inverters with this backup capability.
In the U.S., SMA America, maker of Sunny Boy inverters, had a ready solution in their Secure Power Supply inverters—equivalent to the independent-operation function in Japanese inverters. Sunny Boy inverters can provide up to 1500 watts of AC—that’s 12.5 amps at 120 volts—completely disconnected from the local power grid. Now that there was an existing—and authorized—solution in Japan, SMA pushed their request forward.
U.S. lawmakers and the utility industry gave in, and SMA inverters bolted out of the starting gate into the market. Today, inverters sold by this company include the secure power supply feature. It has been a terrific resource for homeowners who couldn’t or didn’t want to install battery banks for cloudy days or nighttime backup.
I paid just over $40,000 for my 7.4 kW PV system. Local vendors wanted another $40,000 to install battery backup. This exceeded my threshold of cost, so I opted for the Sunny Boy inverter. It’s working well.
I was intrigued when Tesla announced their battery-of-the-future manufacturing plant and developing products. However, I’m still waiting to see empirical results with fully functional battery walls in home environments. Until battery technology catches up with homeowner desires, micro power grids will manage with whatever technology is currently available. Progress is often challenging, but sustainability has indeed come a long way.
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