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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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  • by Joehonkie ( 665142 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:16AM (#42286923) Homepage
    Housing and condo boards will also be total assholes about this. I've had them browbeat me about satellite dishes even after showing evidence that there's a federal law that says they can't tell me how many dishes I'm allowed to have (I had 2). All they care about is that every house looks the same and their devotion to local housing politics pays off in the form of pushing people around.
  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:23AM (#42286997)

    Those HOA fees are ridiculous. In a new development by me it's $200 a month and there's no pool, no park, no "recreation room" nor bbq area. I think it goes for paying for the tiny strip of grass in front of each house (between the sidewalk and street) to be mowed.

    Oh and we can't even put a xmas wreath on our door. I'm amazed they're allowed to put a pumpkin on their front step for Halloween...

    And to think those suckers paid $800k-$1m for their homes. The HOA board members are playing Mafia over there.

  • by DeathToBill ( 601486 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:24AM (#42287001) Journal

    I like how the summary answers its own question - and gets the answer completely wrong. Sure, government red-tape doesn't help. And I'm sure the utilities aren't falling over themselves to promote this (why would they???)

    But the simple, plain fact of the matter is that, unless its being subsidised by the taxpayer, installing solar costs the same as your electricity bill for the next 15-30 years, depending on where you are and how capable your system is. That means your panels are paid off just as they reach the end of their useful life. And if you have batteries, you've likely had to replace them before you've paid them off.

    The average person looks at effectively paying their electricity bill for 30 years up-front and says, "No, thanks!"

  • by rally2xs ( 1093023 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:42AM (#42287243)


    My electric bill: $70 winter, $140 summer. So, at about $100 average, that's 100 months, or 8+ years to equal $10K. Then there is sweeping the snow off it after big storms, tending the batteries, replacing the batteries and the solar panels when they both wear out, etc. Not worth the hassle. Electric don't work now, just call the power company, and THEY go out in the storm and do something about it.

    Now, if a homeowner could somehow execute the solar thermal concept of melting a large amount of salt, and using it to make steam and turn turbines, THAT requires NO BATTERIES and NO parts that need periodic replacement. Theoretically the parts involved are fairly low-tech, and ought to pretty much last forever save maybe changing bearings every now and then. But that would require a lot of land that most people don't have.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:43AM (#42287261)

    So... you voluntarily signed away your freedoms, and now want the government to step in and "protect" you from your own idiocy... right.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:46AM (#42287281)
    Equating the cost of solar panels to a portable generator makes absolutely no sense. The generator is worthless 99.9% of the time, whereas the solar panels would power your home every day for the next 30 years. That in itself doesn't mean solar panels are a good deal for you. But they're simply two different questions.
  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:48AM (#42287317) Homepage

    It destroys all.

    Here's the thing: As bad as government with bureaucracy is, a government without bureaucracy is even worse.

    A real-life example:
    States in the US have laws to require that gasoline pumps actually dispense 1 gallon of fuel when they register 1 gallon of fuel on the meter. There are bureaucracies set up for inspectors to go around and check on each pump periodically to ensure that the owner isn't cheating their customers.

    Now, you may be wondering what the possible value of having and enforcing such a law is - after all, if a gas station cheats its customers no one will go there, right? But what actually happens is that each gas station is motivated to cheat its customers just a bit so that they won't notice right away, and meanwhile it's basically impossible for drivers (especially those from out of town) to price shop because they don't know how much gasoline they'll actually get for the listed price per gallon.

    So, for, say, a city or county of 40,000 people, it's advantageous for everyone but crooked gas station owners to pay $3 in taxes annually for a bureaucrat to spend time testing all the gas pumps in the area (in unannounced visits of course), because they'll save more than $3 in not getting cheated by the crooked gas stations. And this also helps the honest gas station owners, because they know that they aren't going to be out-competed by crooked competition. This math works even if the bureaucrat in question is the mayor's no-good brother-in-law who's getting the $105K + benefits to do this full time: The only people who are harmed by this policy are crooks.

  • by JSBiff ( 87824 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:52AM (#42287369) Journal

    "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."

    So, the solar panels are cost effective because the cost of electricity is high. The next logical question is, why is German electricity so expensive?

    In large part, because of Solar power feed-in tariffs which German utilities are required to pay people who generate surplus solar power with their power panels (so, yeah, it's cheaper to buy your own solar power, than buy solar power from someone else's roof or solar farm, and pay a middle man to markup the power and transmit it).

    If they had planned to build a few more nuclear plants a decade or two ago, instead of planning to shut down their existing nuclear plants in a few years, they'd likely have cheaper power by now.

    But, yes, if cheap power isn't available from the grid, then you may as well generate your own expensive electricity instead of buying someone else's expensive electricity. Grids make sense only when the power the grid can provide you is cheaper than making your own, or you can get it in quantities larger than you can produce with reasonably priced equipment of your own.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:56AM (#42287407) Homepage Journal

    It's fun to bash bureaucrats, but every now and then it's necessary to remember why they're there.

    A few years back a co-worker was griping about the septic inspector, and why there was this guy whose whole job was to occasionally drop by and watch the septic system getting put in. The unfortunate reason is that without that inspector occasionally dropping by unannounced, some unscrupulous contractor would cut corners and skip the installation entirely. They'd just dig a hole, throw in a small load of gravel, run the pipe into it, cover it, and leave - calling it a "septic system". The homeowner would get stuck with the mess - 5 or 10 years down the road. By that time the contractor would have dissolved the company, reorganized as a new company, and still be pulling the same trick.

    I don't know how this applies to solar panels, but I'm sure that there's plenty of room for abuse by unscrupulous contractors and suppliers. I'll agree that sometimes (frequently?) regulation goes wrong. But the goal shouldn't be to eliminate it - it should be to make sure it serves its purpose, while getting in the way as little as possible.

    The real problem with regulation is that generally those who are supposed to be regulated get their fingers into the pie, to try to make sure that regulation inconveniences them as little as possible. Then there are others involved trying to stop that process, and others who are just plain control freaks. The result is sausage, and not particularly good sausage.

  • by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:00PM (#42287455)

    Portable generators are much more, well, portable than solar panels so I'm not quite sure what your point is. They're also easier to protect from extreme weather, can be used any time of the day without having to store the power...

    The reality is that generators and solar panels fill two different needs. Generators are good for short-term, portable electricity generation... a few days or weeks. Solar panels are better as a supplement to year-round energy needs. The best, and most expensive solution, is to have both on hand to even own the downfalls of each other.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:07PM (#42287511)

    How bout you share a link to these fabled %80 cheaper panels. Cause I sure can't fine them.

  • by DCFusor ( 1763438 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:14PM (#42287589) Homepage
    Let me know if that generator hasn't utterly failed before you can put even $450 worth of gas through it. I have a stack of 3 of those here.

    I've been off-grid since around 1980, and yes, it was expensive then. I assume your ridiculous quote included all labour - you're too lazy/incompetent to do it yourself? It's not rocket science. The price you quoted is about what I paid for a full system, with batteries, that has enough extra capacity to also charge my Volt - and I bought more than half this system *before* the prices came down lately. You're perhaps being informative - in the sense that it's easy to get ripped off in the alt energy game - but possible to do it right too.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:17PM (#42287645) Journal

    And if some crisis, like say a monster autumn storm, does billions of dollars of damage to infrastructure, well, your constituents can just go fuck themselves, because, by golly, the only thing that counts in this world is sticking to a four year economic plan no matter fucking what.

  • by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:29PM (#42287791)
    Voluntary is a loaded word in that sentence. Around these parts, virtually all new housing is being built with an HOA installed by default. Sure, there is older housing that doesn't have an HOA, but the supply of HOA free housing is supply side limited. While some people can get them, everyone can't. It's like trying to buy tickets to a sold out show. Sure, the tickets exists. Sure, if one is willing and able to pay a high enough price, you could get your hands on one. But in practice, there will be lots of people that want to go but cannot.

    HOAs are great for a small subset of the population. For most people they are a pain that they just accept.
  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Fallingcow ( 213461 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:33PM (#42287829) Homepage

    There are lots of very prolific posters on Slashdot (and the Internet in general) who think that "Caveat Emptor" should be our national motto, and that because you could become an expert on everything, information imbalances in our economic system aren't a huge problem, or, indeed, a problem at all.

    Most of these people call themselves libertarians. I call them dipshits.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:37PM (#42287891) Journal
    That sounds more like something from a neighborhood association, in fact. That's not even government, that's the private community being jerks about something.
  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by weiserfireman ( 917228 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:51PM (#42288051) Homepage

    We had a problem with this in Idaho in the 2008 time fraim

    They discovered that the digital gas pumps were crooked. The inspectors used to check them at 5 gallons and 10 gallons and they were always right on.

    Someone noticed that the gallons didn't always appear to be measuring at a consistent speed. So they started doing additional testing. The pumps were rigged so that if you bought any amount that wasn't exactly 5 or 10 gallons, you were going to be overcharged. The change was variable, the closer you got to those exact numbers, the closer to exact you total was going to be, but if you dispensed somewhere in the middle, you would pay extra. If you dispensed 7.5 gallons, the pump would charge you for 8 gallons. And over 10 gallons was always going to read high.

    Most of the pumps in the State were accurate and honest, but there were several stations rigged like this. The Bureau of Weights and Measures had to switch to a system where the check the pumps over a range of values for accuracy not just specific targets.

  • Re:Bureaucracy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Medievalist ( 16032 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @01:24PM (#42288469)

    it's basically impossible for drivers (especially those from out of town) to price shop because they don't know how much gasoline they'll actually get for the listed price per gallon.

    I agree with your concept, but in this case it's pretty easy to measure out gas into a marked measuring container..

    Having worked for years in a gas station, and having actually managed one for a while, I can tell you that what you're recommending here involves a huge increase in fatal fires, possibly burning down entire cities.

    Because believe me, the last thing you want is Joe Average trying to measure his own portions of a highly flammable liquid while on the premises of a fuel transfer station. I speak from bitter experience; I can't tell you how many times I've seen people calmly light a cigarette while pumping gas. I can tell hours worth of stories of incredibly insane and dangerous things I've seen people do in gas stations.

    I think our problems stem less from the size and pervasiveness of our bureaucracy, and more from the extreme corruption of that bureaucracy. The problem isn't government, the problem is that government is for sale. Getting rid of government would just make sociopathic behavior cheaper and more evenly available.

  • Energy is expensive in Europe because wholesale gas prices are high and we force companies to pay for proper clean-up and for environmental damage. For example the UK is facing at least £73bn to decommission its current nuclear plants, and it is the energy bill payer who will have to foot that bill.

    Fracking has really helped keep prices down in the US, which is why we are trying to get it started here too. Ultimately though the only reasonably cheap and non-polluting energy source seems to be renewables, so we are just going to have to suck up the short term cost of getting them built up.

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein