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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 DontPanicMMH ( 230993 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:22AM (#42286991)

    Living on the Gulf Coast, the threat of strong storms has always been one of my reasons for being reluctant to plunk down a large investment on Solar Panels.

    How well did existing Solar Panels fair in New York after Sandy?

  • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:24AM (#42287007) Homepage Journal

    That's what bothers me too. I know that if I wanted to install solar panels on the roof of my home I'd have to go through a ton of bureaucracy, which would be based largely on the personal opinions of a largely unaccountable group of people who were interested in their jobs to begin with on the basis of "making the neighborhood look nice" rather than "making things better for residents." Chances of me getting approval? Close to nil.

    The irony is that these agencies push down the values of the homes they govern, while they constantly claim the opposite. We're only in association-controlled land because we couldn't afford to live somewhere more free for the house space we needed. And governments are reluctant to regulate HOAs because they assume that everyone governed by an HOA is there because they wanted a bunch of arbitrary appearance-obsessed nuts to fine them over the most minor details.

    For this kind of thing, it'd be nice to see an agency, like the FCC did with antennas, step in and say "This is our jurisdiction, not yours." It'd also be nice to see the FCC (and whatever agency ends up regularing solar panels) make high profile "busts" of HOAs that go overboard, so HOA officials don't feign ignorance whenever they break the rules and make life hell for homeowners until long after the lawyers are called in.

  • by onyxruby ( 118189 ) <`ten.tsacmoc' `ta' `yburxyno'> on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:25AM (#42287019)

    I like solar and geothermal energy sources for home based power. I am also a pragmatist that realizes simply legislating that everyone install solar panels for a wide scale would be financially ruinous. I think you could go about this with a hybrid approach that could allow the market to do what it does best while steering people to a greener future.

    Start by saying that all new (and remodeled) buildings must includes support for 10% of their anticipated energy needs from a renewable source (let the source be up to the customer) and the switching equipment required for the grid. This will be a small enough amount that it can be met with a minimal number of solar panels or other sources. Importantly this will allow time for electricians, home builders, retailers and the like to start getting to understand renewable energy without being overwhelming. It will also allow for things like the switching equipment for the grid to start getting put in place.

    Every four years after this starts you increase the amount of energy required by 10%. The increase is slow enough to give the market time to react and bring products, expertise and the like to bear. This is also slow enough to allow competition to build and for prices to benefit from economies of scale.

    By the time the rate increases from 10% to 20% the market will have had time to develop skills, materials and everything else that is needed. This avoids a crisis that would come from simply mandating a significant amount come from renewable energy to begin with when the present market can't possibly meet that demand. This also allows for retrofitting with additional capacity by owners that want to ramp up from 10% to a higher percent.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:26AM (#42287027)

    No dude, must be you.

    My neighbors got an "official" notice because they were out of town for the weekend and left their trash bin out. Someone else in our development was forced to repaint his house ($5k!!) because it was the wrong shade of gray. Don't know who it was but it was in the HOA minutes.

  • by Dishwasha ( 125561 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:28AM (#42287067)

    I did some research a couple of years ago and the cost recoup was still somewhere between 10-15 years for installing solar just for the cost of the hardware and not including labor. It's hard to put up that kind of capital outlay just to save around $100 on my monthly electricity bill. I decided I could save a lot more money by applying that same amount of money to my mortgage. I keep hearing about new solar technology that is tons more efficient, but where is all that new tech?

  • by sir_eccles ( 1235902 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:32AM (#42287127)

    They are so predictable, the slightest hint of something being difficult they give up and say it can't be done. We'd still be living in caves rubbing two sticks together if it was up to you guys.

    So it might be cloudy sometimes. Well maybe there is a way to store electricity when there is a surplus and feed it out again when there is high demand. There are dozens of technologies available to do this from batteries to pumped storage and everything in between (oh yes I know someone will reply to me to say that won't work because conversion losses or whatever so we shouldn't bother).

    Also this grid thing might be a good idea, that way if it is sunny in one place but cloudy in another people can share (but oh no it won't completely replace all nuclear coal and gas fired power stations in the whole US so we shouldn't bother).

    Do you know how many new houses were built in the last decade housing boom? I don't know either but just consider if even a small PV panel of a couple of square meters was on each one, the cost would be much less through economies of scale and it would make a significant dent in energy demands (but oh no it won't completely replace all nuclear coal and gas fired power stations in the whole US so we shouldn't bother).

    And yes most states now have laws that prevent HOAs restricting the use of PV.

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @11:52AM (#42287359)

    [Citation Needed]. From my personal experience, my solar panels make my energy bill a net zero from Spring to Fall. I don't have a previous comparison, as my house had solar panels when I moved in, but by my estimate, it's putting the break-even point at about 10 years tops.

    No, you shouldn't invest in solar panels if you're in Chicago or even Seattle. But in a nice and sunny place, like the entire southern half of the US, solar panels can pay off in less than ten years. What's also being missed is that they reduce overall consumption of gas, coal and oil, which lowers prices overall, makes them more available in other industries, and generally contribute to massive efficiencies in energy distribution.

    All in all, I don't know why anyone with the capital handy wouldn't do this. On the other hand, for those without the capital handy.... well, there's a reason why it is so hard to move out of the working poor class. It's hard to save money when you don't have the capital on hand to invest in durable goods that are cheaper over the long run.

  • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:06PM (#42287505)

    First of all, there are more problems than those listed above.

    Issue 1: "anti-islanding."
    So, a power line leading up to your home or business goes down. The lineman finds the break, and then goes to the nearest transformer to open the circuit, interrupting power to the side of the line break so that he may safely approach the break in the line and repair it. EXCEPT...unbeknownst to him, you have solar panels, and the other side of the line is live also. He is survived by a wife and 2.4 kids. This is the scenario that 'anti-islanding' prevents. Unfortunately, it falls within the realm of technology intended to prevent loss of life, and thus is very expensive because it must. always. work. The majority of cost for a solar panel installation is this technology; the cost of the panels themselves does not at all reflect the actual cost of HAVING solar panels installed. This is a large part of the 'hidden tax' that one of the linked articles refers to, and isn't exactly optional.

    Issue 2: Phase synchronization
    This is less of a problem to the overal grid unless solar and other alternative power sources become more widespread. But it'll nuke your own stuff at home. AC power in your outlets is 60 Hz. But think of it as a wave (which it is). The waves rise and fall not only at the same frequency everywhere on the grid, but in sync as well. Otherwise, you get the kind of situation that takes place when you have waves from one place in a pond, and waves in another place in the pond...and the waves don't overlap perfectly. Instead of an even wave pattern of consistent frequency and amplitude, you get something less orderly. Electronics (and at higher voltages, electrical equipment in substations) don't like that very much. So the systems that generate power from solar panels, etc. must detect the phase frequency (with many, many points of precision...a deviation of .01 Hz is a BAD thing on the power grid) and timing, and match. Otherwise, you'll have nasty strange things go on at home. Remember...when you generate your own power, you become a generation facility. Not as big as a coal-fired plant, but you are a generation entity all the same.

    Which leads to the Issue 3: the main reason why Germany (and most countries, really) get these things done so much quicker. Germany is tiny compared to the US, both in terms of grid geography and in terms of grid scale. Overall, their grid is also newer, more modern, and more standardized. All of Germany can be managed by one reliability entity, for example. The US has eight, most of which cover a section of grid that larger than all of what is in Germany. On top of this, add those in Canada, because for all intents and purposes, there is no border between our grid and theirs (as evidenced in 2003, when a fault in Ohio ended up pulling down a lot of Quebec and Ontario along with the US Northeast). Also, control at the local realm is much more decentralized; here, we have PUCs for each community. Those PUCs vary widely in their efficiency and (cough) philosophy about their purpose. Some are quite efficient, some are a total pain in the ass...that's how it goes. In some places, like Washington, DC, getting approval is fairly straightforward because the local PUC is very interested in seeing these technologies tried out and tested. In others, you get pinheads with a power trip (no pun intended) who love playing the goalkeeper. This isn't a problem that exists solely for alternative energies, though...the power companies themselves have the same issue with these kinds of people. A pain in the ass is usually a pain in the ass for everyone, and these solar guys shouldn't take it so personally. It's not about them.

  • by gander666 ( 723553 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:15PM (#42287605) Homepage
    My house in Tucson, Arizona has a 7.6kW PV system. Our total electric bill for the year is ~ $180.00. It used to be about $2000. Most months, we generate more than we use, and we just pay the $7 taxes. Out of pocket cost was a hair over $17K, so in 9-ish years it will pay for itself, and we will have an annual electricity bill that is less than one of the former summer months' consumption.

    Of course living in the sunshine capital of the US is helpful in the generation
  • by Lonewolf666 ( 259450 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:26PM (#42287765)

    Mostly true, but I doubt the part about "building a few more nuclear plants". Those get a lot of hidden subsidies too, like grossly inadequate compulsory insurance for nuclear power plants and the state bearing most of the risks.
    For instance, the financial cost from the Fukushima accident may exceed 100 billion dollars(1). But nuclear plant operators in Germany only need to insure a coverage of 2.5 billion euros. A mandatory coverage that matches disasters like Fukushima would make nuclear power a lot more expensive.

    (1): http://rt.com/business/news/tepco-fukushima-costs-double-158/ [rt.com].

  • by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @12:37PM (#42287889)

    Depends. My friend here just got together with another buddy of his, they formed an LLC, became a reseller, bought the panels wholesale for 4 people's houses, got them for about 1/3 retail price all told counting discounts on shipping, etc (including all the inverters, rails, etc). Then of course they all get their various tax breaks, which knocks off about another 1/3 of the remaining cost, then you just do the install yourself (which is actually relatively easy if you're at all handy). You can get the cost for a full set of 30 standard 29v modules down to around 8k plus labor, quite affordable considering you've just easily shaved 50% off your electricity cost (we're in the Northeast here, so you can do better down south/out west, though we are paying $0.15/kwh). Obviously not EVERYONE is going to be able to do this, but frankly its just not that technically difficult if you're at all handy and can follow directions, know the electric code, etc.

    He's also feeding power into a few marine batteries, which is nice. Purchase some led light tape, wire up a couple DC legs and mount it here and there, if you go off-grid you can easily have rather adequate emergency lighting 24/7 (and even run an appliance now and then off an inverter if you need to at night). No doubt you can get better battery tech if you plan to use battery power regularly, but for emergency use plain old lead/acid is fine and cheap.

    Truthfully I suspect with panels likely doubling in efficiency, and batteries looking like they're going towards about 5x better price/performance and longer durability in the next 5 years by say 2017 its going to start looking viable to just generate 100% of your own power, the grid can become a backup.

  • by slb ( 72208 ) * on Friday December 14, 2012 @01:29PM (#42288551) Homepage

    Your installation cost for a residential system is extremely cheap ! On average in the USA a 3kW system would be a $17000 investment [1]. Also your annual savings are quite incredible: with the average household cost of electricity in the USA at 11.72c per kWh [2], it would mean that your system produced around 13413 kWh [12x(163-32)/0.1172] over a year ! For a 3kW system this would mean that your magic installation as a capacity factor of 51% !!!! [13413/ (3 x 24 x 365)].

    So yes, I don't know if you're delusional but you have been most likely lying by forgetting to speak about the subsidies you received for the installation and feed-in tarif. Oh and if you want to prove your case, please state your location and the supplier of your system...

    What is far more annoying than your convenient omission of subsidies is all the idiots solar fanboys moderating you informative when they have absolutely no clue about the real cost of Solar PV energy....

    [1] http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/RE_Technologies_Cost_Analysis-SOLAR_PV.pdf [irena.org]
    [2] http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_5_03 [eia.gov]

Think of it! With VLSI we can pack 100 ENIACs in 1 sq. cm.!