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Power United States Hardware Politics

Solar Panels For Every Home? 735

Hugh Pickens writes "David Crane and Robert F.Kennedy Jr. write in the NY Times that with residents of New Jersey and New York living through three major storms in the past 16 months and suffering sustained blackouts, we need to ask whether it is really sensible to power the 21st century by using an antiquated and vulnerable system of copper wires and wooden poles. Some have taken matters into their own hands, purchasing portable gas-powered generators to give themselves varying degrees of grid independence. But these dirty, noisy and expensive devices have no value outside of a power failure and there is a better way to secure grid independence for our homes and businesses: electricity-producing photovoltaic panels installed on houses, warehouses and over parking lots, wired so that they deliver power when the grid fails. 'Solar panels have dropped in price by 80 percent in the past five years and can provide electricity at a cost that is at or below the current retail cost of grid power in 20 states, including many of the Northeast states,' write Crane and Kennedy. 'So why isn't there more of a push for this clean, affordable, safe and inexhaustible source of electricity?' First, the investor-owned utilities that depend on the existing system for their profits have little economic interest in promoting a technology that empowers customers to generate their own power. Second, state regulatory agencies and local governments impose burdensome permitting and siting requirements that unnecessarily raise installation costs. While it can take as little as eight days to license and install a solar system on a house in Germany, in the United States, depending on your state, the average ranges from 120 to 180 days."
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Solar Panels For Every Home?

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  • Extremely expensive (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:15AM (#42286909)

    For my house in NJ, we got a quote for about $30,000 (of which we would pay $10,000 out of pocket) to put solar panels on our roof. We also were being asked to cut down 4 trees in order to get optimal sunlight. After hurricane Sandy, we instead bought a $450 3270 watt generator which is portable, won't be damaged outside, and can be shared with neighbors if need be.

    Note also that if you want to make your house off-the-grid (as option) with solar, that requires much more expense. Batteries, inverter switches, etc.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:19AM (#42286953)

    Sure solar panels have gone down in price. I put a 9kW solar array on my roof 2 years ago, using grid-tied microinverters. The catch is that if the grid power goes out, the microinverters shut down so they are not putting juice onto the grid and zapping linesmen. This means the solar panels are not able to do anything during a power outage. If you want the panels to run, then there will be a huge investment in a battery system with a charge controller, load shedding and rather expensive batteries, along with an auto transfer switch to cut you off from the grid... these things easily make the solar panels the cheap item in the system.

  • by Lonewolf666 ( 259450 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:23AM (#42286995)

    True, especially the part about batteries. But then again, the solar panels won't need gasoline.

    Overall, solar panes as emergency power supply are not cost efficient. But as a long term investment to reduce your utility bill, they may be worthwhile. In the case of my parents' house (southern Germany, pretty high electricity prices of ~0.25 Euros/kWh), I think a small photovoltaic installation might amortize itself within a few years.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:25AM (#42287015)

    I have a 1800 sq. ft. house, by no means huge, basically average sized. I put 39 230 watt panels on the roof and I easily generate far beyond my usage - under real world conditions, a bright sunny day in June (in Michigan) I generate about 7.5kW steady all day long. The house idles at about 500 watts (refridgerator, one computer as a server, some fluorescent lights here and there that are left on almost always, nat. gas furnace fan, etc. things like that)

  • by djh101010 ( 656795 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:26AM (#42287041) Homepage Journal
    I put 3KW of panels on my parents' barn roof this summer. Their monthly bill has gone down from an average of $163 a month, to an average of $32 a month. On a $7000 investment. That's a 54 month payback - call it 5 years to make the numbers easy. It's grid tied. Doesn't solve the outage problem, but it certainly is a good investment when there's a 5 year return on investment. Still tied to the grill, yep. That way we can sell the surplus on sunny days. So tell me, am I lying, or am I completely delusional? Or maybe, just maybe, you're working from inaccurate or obsolete information?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:27AM (#42287045)

    "we need to ask whether it is really sensible to power the 21st century by using an antiquated and vulnerable system of copper wires and wooden poles."

    Every time there's a hurricane, people ask the power companies, "should we bury the power lines?" And the companies say, "sure, we'll have to charge you this much more in rates, and it'll take this many years" and the consumers say, "yeah, no, forget it."

    There's nothing antiquated about overhead power lines. It's an engineering decision with tradeoffs both ways. Neither technology is clearly superior.

    Overhead power lines are an obvious eyesore, and go down pretty regularly in extreme weather. (Although they're pretty resilient, too.) Burying power lines has significant costs even after you've got them buried. They're hard and more expensive to repair, they have a shorter lifespan (which most people don't know), and they're are competing for space with all the other crap we've got buried.

  • by Sparticus789 ( 2625955 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:31AM (#42287109) Journal

    Some electrical engineering knowledge will take you a long ways.

    1. Calculate how much power you actually need during a power outage. A refrigerator is about 1,000 W. Throw in 100 W for light bulbs. TV/cable box/modem/router comes out to around 300 W (assuming flat-screen). So actually, your inverter only needs to be around 2,000 W (giving 10% cushion for device power-up). Those retail for $150-$200.

    2. Charge controller is mainly for high-end systems. Try a diode or a batter isolator made for a vehicle.

    3. Batteries are not that expensive. I just bought a 870 kW deep-cycle battery for my vehicle for $200. During the Derecho in July, I was able to power my TV, fridge, and laptop for over 3 hours (I turned my vehicle on every 3 hours for 10 minutes to recharge the battery). That worked for the 36 hours I was without power.

    4. Auto-transfer switch is nice, but unnecessary. If you are too lazy to flip 2 circuit breakers, one to isolate your house from the gird and another to connect your inverter to your house, then you are just screwed.

  • by kimvette ( 919543 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:35AM (#42287159) Homepage Journal

    Unfortunately, most generators in the sub-$2,000 range require an oil change every 12-20 hours of runtime, and burn through a tank of fuel every 5-8 hours. It's not terribly convenient. Flex fuel and LPG or LNG generators are better as you can hook them up to much larger fuel sources, negating the need for multiple refills per day, and they also typically extend runtime between oil changes to hundreds or even thousands of hours.

  • Re:HOA approvals (Score:5, Informative)

    by HogGeek ( 456673 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:40AM (#42287229)

    It may be a state to state thing, but here in Colorado:

    Colorado law (C.R.S. 38-30-168)

      Associations are not permitted to prohibit the installation of solar panels on a unit or property which is owned by a member of the association. Any such prohibition in the governing documents of an association is void and unenforceable.

  • Re:Flooded batteries (Score:5, Informative)

    by ebh ( 116526 ) <edhorch&gmail,com> on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:44AM (#42287263) Journal

    We have 35 panels on our roof. We lost nine trees during Sandy, but there was no damage to the solar panels. We also have solar canopies and things like that all over town, and I only saw minor damage in one installation. Our only real vulnerability is if a tree falls on the panels themselves.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:48AM (#42287309)

    In the Netherlands there are a few (relatively) simple rules that need to be adhered to. The upside is that there are mandated nationwide through all municipialities.

    - on a angled roof the solar panels must fall in the same flat surface and angle of the roof without protruding.
    - on a flat roof the solar panels must not be visible from the street, this implies about 2 feet of space around the edges.

    Ofcourse there are few exceptions:
    - trackers, those need permits, even in the backyard.
    - if you want to install panels on the facia of the building you need permits

    This gives a lot of freedom and covers the "simple man" home owner. And it also prevents some of the installations seen in Germany which are frankly hideous. They might be giving a bit too much freedom there.

    One of the issues raised by the original poster is the (backup) power issue. Pretty much all solar installations are of the Grid-Tie type, this means that they will not operate when the utilities power is cut. There are a few solutions for sale now which couple grid-tie for feed-in with battery backup for backup for increased self consumption.

    I will leave it up to decide for the people themselves if the cost associated with Batteries and pricier Inverter are worth the trade off for backup power. However, when faced with a week long power outage it is nice to atleast have a working fridge so that food doesn't spoil.

    My own solar installation wakes up every day and generates power I don't have to pay for. It doesn't need any maintenance or cleaning. Sure it doesn't produce as much in the winter as it does in the summer, but it's still power I don't have to do anything for. It also made me accutely aware of my own power consumption, which can be argued is a good thing. The prices for the panels have come down a really long way since 2010. However, the inverters and batteries have not really gotten any cheaper over the course of a few years.

  • by ebh ( 116526 ) <edhorch&gmail,com> on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:51AM (#42287347) Journal

    Ours were fine, even though the wind took out nine trees.

  • by djh101010 ( 656795 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:56AM (#42287411) Homepage Journal
    Our 3K array produces about 1200 watts of power under full clouds when it's raining. It's produced as much as 3100 watts in full sun. So yeah, it's degraded, but not useless.
  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:15PM (#42287599)

    Nah. There is a protocol for storage that includes removing the gasoline from the engine that everyone that has to deal with seasonal equipment knows all about.

    This article is ridiculous. I have lived 12 miles inland from the NJ shore for 20 years. In that entire time I've experienced ONE power outage lasting more than 24 hours, that being the recent storm. I got through it partly with the help a gasoline generator that cost about $400.

    I am not about to use this experience as a reason to install a power system for tens of thousands of dollars that the storm would have probably blown off the top of my roof and WOULDN'T supply power at night, which is when I would have needed it anyway.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Informative)

    by bws111 ( 1216812 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:17PM (#42287631)

    You say 'especially federal goverment', than give an example which is almost certainly from the lowest possible local level.

  • by DeathToBill ( 601486 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:24PM (#42287731) Journal

    Does your "electricty bill for the next 15-30 years" figure (Which is wrong, btw. Modern installations pay for themselves in 5-7) factor in the tax, regulatory, environmental, and build cost of creating new power plants?

    Hint: No, it doesn't. Power plants are massively expensive and nobody wants them in their back yard. When one is planned it can take years or decades of (expensive to taxpayer) legal wrangling before ground is broken.

    Excuse me looking puzzled. Are you an idiot, or are you being deliberately obtuse? Where do you think grid power comes from today, if not from that "massively expensive" power plant? The current underlying cost of electricity exactly reflects the cost of building plant and distribution infrastructure. Is there some reason that plant will become much more expensive to build tomorrow? Future cost of energy depends mainly on two things: Economics of fossil fuel supply and governments deliberately discouraging energy production through tax and regulation.

    How exactly do you expect your (fixed capacity) solar installation to help with your future increased energy needs, since they are "not up for argument"? Cost of energy of solar installations are still considerably higher than cost of large-scale grid generation. How does making energy more expensive help with future increased power demands?

    Modern installations pay for themselves in ~5 years with subsidies, not on their own. The current estimated payback period for UK installations is still 11 years for a typical home installation, and that's still with installation subsidy and feed-in-tariff guarantees (ie subsidies), a grid-dependent inverter and no batteries - which make it useless for the emergency scenario original posited.

    So whose worldview is skewed here? Mine or yours? Don't get me wrong, I design windmills for a living. Bread on my table depends on renewable energy. That's not a good reason to stick your head in the sand and ignore the economics of generation.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Informative)

    by tizan ( 925212 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:48PM (#42288025)

    Indeed as usual ...we should fix what is not market without control and checks will just kill people they don't need.
    E.g the tunnel in Japan that just collapsed...private toll paid tunnel.

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle