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Power The Almighty Buck

Utilities Battle Homeowners Over Solar Power 533 writes Diane Cardwell reports in the NYT that many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar power, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. The economic threat has electric companies on edge. Over all, demand for electricity is softening while home solar is rapidly spreading across the country. There are now about 600,000 installed systems, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by 2020, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In Hawaii, the current battle began in 2013, when Hawaiian Electric started barring installations of residential solar systems in certain areas. It was an abrupt move — a panicked one, critics say — made after the utility became alarmed by the technical and financial challenges of all those homes suddenly making their own electricity. "Hawaii is a postcard from the future," says Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a policy and advocacy group based in California.

But utilities say that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts. "At every different moment, we have to make sure that the amount of power we generate is equal to the amount of energy being used, and if we don't keep that balance things go unstable," says Colton Ching, vice president for energy delivery at Hawaiian Electric, pointing to the illuminated graphs and diagrams tracking energy production from wind and solar farms, as well as coal-fueled generators in the utility's main control room. But the rooftop systems are "essentially invisible to us," says Ching, "because they sit behind a customer's meter and we don't have a means to directly measure them." The utility wants to cut roughly in half the amount it pays customers for solar electricity they send back to the grid. "Hawaii's case is not isolated," says Massoud Amin. "When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly — every two years or so — there's going to be problems."
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Utilities Battle Homeowners Over Solar Power

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  • by NecroPuppy ( 222648 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:25AM (#49504803) Homepage

    IT's early (for me) and my standard disclaimer of "the caffeine hasn't kicked in yet" applies, but "a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction" doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me.

    I admit that circuits was a long time ago, and I never took (or had to take) the high power courses... But what does that even mean? The system is still AC, isn't it? So it's been handling carrying things in both directions forever.

    Is this industry BS, or is there something to this claim?

    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:36AM (#49504849)

      There's something to this claim. The power electric companies traditionally have control over all inputs to the system. Home solar changes that.

      Unfortunately, the power company is still expected to make sure that the power comes in at the right voltage and frequency. And with control on only part of the inputs, that's a lot harder. The fewer inputs they control, the harder...

      Theoretically, you can design a control system that'll handle the problem. But, so far, noone has bothered to, because noone's had a need to. As solar becomes more common that'll change, and the problems will go away.

      One part of the problem is NOT going to go away however - they have to pay to maintain the lines. Right now, that cost if covered by your electric bills. As the amount of electricity you draw from their generators goes down, they're going to reach the point of needing to charge you a flat fee just for the connection to the power lines, plus the usual fees for actually using their electricity.

      • by __aaltlg1547 ( 2541114 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:00PM (#49504957)

        To really handle it, you have to be able to prevent solar producers from putting power on the lines if there's too much production for the consumers. That means there need to be some restrictions on the design of solar systems so they don't keep dumping excess power into the grid when it's not needed. Ultimately this may mean that for cities with lots of solar systems, there will be parts of the day when your system limits itself to only producing what you can use in your house and puts no power back on the line.

        • by John.Banister ( 1291556 ) * on Sunday April 19, 2015 @03:57PM (#49506077) Homepage
          Couldn't the giant utility have a giant flywheel into which they dump any excess power during peak times? Then customer overproduction isn't such an issue, and the entire community benefits from having one large energy storage instead of thousands of small ones. If Japan can magnetically levitate their trains, surely Hawaii could manage to lift a big flywheel.
        • by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:53PM (#49508151) Homepage

          The properly handle the problem Tesla Motors needs to start producing home batteries and not just batteries for cars. This will help them and help us. It would be logical for Tesla Motors to come up with a complete kit ready to be installed, panels,batteries, inverters and obviously a direct socket to plug in a electric vehicle for power in either direction.

      • ...As the amount of electricity you draw from their generators goes down, they're going to reach the point of needing to charge you a flat fee just for the connection to the power lines, plus the usual fees for actually using their electricity....

        I already pay separately for delivery (i.e., connection to lines) vs. generation (i.e., use of electricity). so no change needed here.

        Having said that, I do have some agreement with the utilities on this item: utilities say that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts.

        • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @01:35PM (#49505353)

          Not just some but essentially full agreement. The problem here is that when solar starts a production spike, all houses in the region with solar will suddenly spike at once. That is what causes the overloads in the residential circuit which was never designed to handle such spikes because they were never considered when grid was built.

          The only solutions are:
          1. Massive investment into grid upgrades, which comes with increase in maintenance costs.
          2. Capping solar's ability to dump into the grid while keeping the current grid and it's relatively low maintenance costs (solution proposed here).

          Problem with #2 is that it significantly reduces ROI of solar installation, as it's being actively marketed with ROI that enables solar microproducers to dump excess into the grid at a good price. This was lobbied in back when solar was just starting, and no one thought of the current scenario - solar that is popular enough to threaten grid stability.

      • The last point is a good one, and it's bigger than just the utilities. Over here, there's a hefty tax on every kWh (as there is on pretty much everything else). Since private households delivering power to the grid get paid retail rates including taxes (up to the total amount they draw from the system each year), solar installations pay for themselves quickly. However at some point, energy tax revenues will decline to the point where the government will have to make up for the loss by taxing something el
        • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @01:38PM (#49505373)

          There is another problem here as well, which has caused significant upheaval in Australia. Solar subsidies have effectively ended up as a tax on the poor which is subsidising the rich. This is because poor are forced to pay full price for all electricity they use, while rich can simply buy the microproducer plant to put on their roof and use net metering to effectively get paid from common pool paid mostly by poor who can't afford those.

          Since we're talking about infrastructure that is necessary for everyone, it ends up as excessive tax on poor that is used to subsidise the rich on costs of infrastructure used by everyone.

          • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @03:19PM (#49505913)

            Why aren't there companies offering to put solar PV on your roof (e.g. even if you're poor), and you can pay them basically the standard utility rate for your electricity.
            The company can make the difference in profit, after fixed costs. Such companies are operating in the US.

            Meanwhile, solar infrastructure is built up, as it needs to be to reduce GHG emissions.

      • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:31PM (#49505101)

        Theoretically, you can design a control system that'll handle the problem. But, so far, noone has bothered to, because noone's had a need to.

        Why don't you ask the Germans how they have manage to do this already . . . ?

      • by savuporo ( 658486 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:36PM (#49505123)

        Its not just frequency and voltage, there is phase and power factor [], harmonics etc. Grid tie inverters are not simple pieces of equipment by any means - they try to synchronize and follow the grid power delivery by following grid input AC waveform at the point of connection, which is a limited bit of information and may not be fully in sync with macro-scale grid need at any given moment.
        For a perfectly synched network you would have to have atomic clocks and low latency radio link network with each point of generation, that's obviously not going to happen, so hacks, power factor correction systems, extra reactive loads etc are and will have to be implemented.

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        The questions haver been answerd in other countries already. If they have not been answerd in the USofA is this because:
        A) The companies do not actualy want it
        B) The companies do not want to invest
        C) The CEO needs a new boat
        D) All of the above

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:47PM (#49505175)

        EE working for a utility here, and I agree with all of this. The utility I work for, and a lot of others, don't even generate any power, we just do transmission and distribution, i.e. "poles and wires". Solar still causes us headaches. Don't get me wrong, I love solar, and I want reduced fossil-fuel usage, but the issue really is more nuanced than the public perception of "the utility just doesn't want us making our own power so they can keep charging us money".

        Most people seem to operate under the assumption that power distribution is a network, where it flows in any direction. On the transmission side, yes, this is true. For distribution, it's generally false, except in large cities. More common are radial feeds, where several circuits, also called feeders, come out of the substation, each one typically having multiple branches and serving a certain area. Think of it like an artery system. The main trunk of the feeder has larger size wires that can handle more current, the branches have smaller sizes, etc. It's designed for power flowing from the substation to the customers, and not vice versa. There are a number of issues that arise when this expectation is violated. As a few examples:

        If the homeowner at the end of the branch puts in a large solar installation, the wires and distribution equipment may not be sized to handle the power he's producing.

        The variability of generation and inability to measure it is definitely an obstacle. Let's say there's an area with 20MW of load, and 15MW is being provided by solar. The solar output is unpredictable, but to the utility, who probably only has real time metering at the substation, it just looks like 5MW of load, so they don't know that when the sun goes down or a storm passes through they're going to see a major load increase.

        It's a safety issue. The utility does not, and absolutely never will, assume that a customer has a properly functioning transfer switch that prevents backfeed during outages, which can be hazardous to both linemen working to restore power. There are certainly safety precautions that linemen can take, but it's still a danger.

        On the billing side, the utility still needs to maintain equipment to provide whatever class of service the homeowner has. They need to be able to provide, for example, 400 amps, even if the homeowner gets solar and winds up having a bill of $0 from the utility. The O&M costs for such customers wind up being effectively subsidized by people who don't have solar.

        I like solar, and I'm not afraid of it putting me out of a job, at least in my lifetime. I think when battery technology is more mature, it could help alleviate a number of issues that currently exist. But the public perception that its conspiracy by big bad utility is just trying to stifle competition is untrue. I'm not going to say that anticompetitiveness could never be the motivation for a utility to fight the proliferation of solar, but from an engineer's perspective, there are real obstacles that exist that many people don't realize or appreciate.

      • by jonwil ( 467024 )

        My power company here in Australia charges me 0.673700c a day for the fixed connection to the grid and 0.259500c for each kWh of electricity I use. Other electricity providers I have been with in other places in Australia do the same thing (per-day charge and per-KWh charge)

        There is no reason utilities in the US and elsewhere can't do the same thing (charge all customers a fixed per-day fee that covers the cost of maintaining and running the network and stuff then charge customers for each kWh of electricit

    • Is this industry BS, or is there something to this claim?

      The power companies do actually have somewhat of a point but, in many ways, the issues are very similar to what's going on with internet technologies.

      Part of your electric bill goes to maintaining the electric grid and the LV (Low Voltage) network that serves your neighborhood. Suppose there are 10 homes on an LV network and 2 of them install 7,000 watt solar arrays. Now the cost of maintaining the LV network has to be split among 8 homes instead

  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:28AM (#49504813) Journal

    The complaints that the rooftop systems are invisible to the power companies "because they sit behind a customer's meter and we don't have a means to directly measure them" can be addressed pretty easily with updated electric meters.

    The power companies are all moving towards "smart meter" technologies anyway. Why not make sure they've put one in that can monitor the output of a PV solar (or even a wind turbine) installation while they're at it?

    When I had my solar system installed, the power company had to switch out my meter. And even though we're one of the last remaining areas around here that doesn't yet use smart meters, they still upgraded me to a bi-directional meter so my power generation vs. usage can be tracked. So they're spending $'s on labor and hardware to mess with your meter each time a new solar system is put in. It's their short-sightedness if they don't put more useful equipment in place while they're doing that anyway!

    And when it comes to solar, I think the output is fairly predictable too. The only real "fluctuations" you get with the output are based on the day's weather conditions. If you compare my panels to my friend who lives on the other side of town and has a PV solar installation, our daily power generation numbers are within 2-3KWh of each other, and the hourly rates on a graph look almost identical. The power company receives and has to sign off on a registration form stating you've installed a small power generation system and they're made aware of its exact size/maximum output at that time. So even with NO other metering capability, they'd be able to predict that in a certain part of the circuit, they now have someone who will add, at most, a specific amount of power back to the lines between the hours of 10AM and 2PM (when the panels produce the most power). It seems like this is data they should be able to work with.

    • by NicBenjamin ( 2124018 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:32AM (#49504837)

      They're businessmen.

      Dealing with that requires a change to their process, which means costs (ie: new meters, people smart enough to handle monitoring the system, etc.). They will whine to high heaven about it until a) the government steps in and writes them a check in exchange for shutting the fuck up, or b) the Courts order them to do it anyway.

    • The power companies are all moving towards "smart meter" technologies anyway. Why not make sure they've put one in that can monitor the output of a PV solar (or even a wind turbine) installation while they're at it?

      For that matter, it seems perfectly reasonable to require the homeowner to install such a meter as part of a solar installation, as a condition of being able to sell power to the utility -- or even to push power into the grid at all.

      • Have to agree, as the home owner is becoming what is essentially a competing power company. If not the entire meter, then at least the difference in cost from a typical one to the bi-directional variety.

        • I don't think it's so much about the homeowner becoming a competitor, but about the homeowner asking to interoperate, becoming a partner rather than just a customer.
          • They're a competitor to the power generation company, and a partner to the power distribution company. Frequently, they're the same so the homeowner will be viewed as a nuisance and a competitor.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:50AM (#49504919)

      The problem is not that the meters can't measure the power in both directions. The problem is the latency the communication network on the meters can deliver the information to the control room. Smart Meters typically send home a simple KWH "energy" import/export number every so often for the purposes of billing. What systems engineers in control rooms need is real time access to the instantaneous power being generated by roof top solar systems. Their meter reading infrastructure is not designed for this kind of response.

      Now all of a sudden meter paradigms change from a billing information collection program to a Power Quality program. Its a different system with different requirements.

      It gets even more complex because you have lots of coops that do not generate power but only transmit it. How in the world do they get that information to the person they are buying power from at any given moment?

      Its a HUGE issue that is not simply the evil power company wanting to stick it to the little guy. The Power companies have a big responsibility to keeping the grid stable. We take for granted the complexities involved to make stable 60hz ac power.

      • by haruchai ( 17472 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:41PM (#49505149)

        Just more lame excuses.
        Australia, a giant country that's almost as large as America but with only 1/15th the population went from nearly ZERO rooftop PV in 2009 to over 4GW by the end of 2015. It's true that the utilities there have been whining about voltage surges since 2011 but the amount of rooftop installations have increased 10x since that time and the grid hasn't melted down.

        In other words, if the utilities in the USA are only as marginally as competent as the ones down under, they should be able to deal with a 5-10x increase in solar across the same population / geographic area.

        • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @02:01PM (#49505479)

          Australia's solar policy has been called an "unmitigated disaster". It's basically a method of subsidising the rich by taxing the poor which is approaching the point of collapse. Even the massively pro-green sites like reneweconomy have been forced to admit there is a significant problem (though they try to obfuscate this by talking up the other relevant points like spinning reserve that burns coal).

          • by haruchai ( 17472 )

            "This is despite the fact that residential power prices have risen 70 per cent since the Barnett government came to power in 2008"

            If prices rose this much in any of the Freedom-lovin' states in America, there would be a vast exercise of 2nd amendment rights. This hurts the poor FAR more than any perceived subsidising of the "rich", really the middle class.
            I have quite a few friends in Australia who have solar PV. NONE of them - ZERO - are wealthy, mostly all working couples in modest homes with 1-3 kids, us

    • To connect a power source to the grid, there has to be a cutoff that disconnects it when the grid voltage drops to zero due to, for example, a tree falling and shorting it to ground. If there isn't a cutoff
      • - the grid sucks all your power and probably blows your fuses and/or rectifier diodes, and
      • - the hydro guy who expects to be handing a dead line suddenly has it jump to 110 or 220V, the instant he lifts it off ground.

      Linemen don't like becoming part of the circuits, so they successfully called for the disconnect-if-zero laws.

      Power companies (at least in Canada and large parts of the world) already have equipment to deal with the fact that the power can flow both ways. In fact, claiming they don't have equipment is only true IFF the power companies are the ones who like electrocuting their employees (;-))

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        That's why the linemen say it's not dead until it's dead and grounded. They are supposed to bond the line to ground before working on it and that bond is supposed to only be disconnected right before the line is turned back on.

        But since mistakes happen, it's a good thing that home inverters won't power a dead line.

        The biggest danger to linemen (and has been for a while) is id10ts wiring their portable generators in or plugging them in with a "widowmaker" (A generator chord with a male end to plug in to the

    • by adolf ( 21054 )

      They don't need the data.

      They already don't have control over distributed demand.

      Therefore they don't need control over distributed supply.

      Joe stuffing 2kW into the local grid in a not-monitored-in-realtime, not-centrally-controlled fashion simply helps to offset Fred's not-monitored-in-realtime, not centrally-controlled air conditioner, or Tim's arc welder, or a concert venue firing up on a Saturday night, a 500-ton factory press, or...

      Of course someone has to distribute this power, and that someone is "th

    • by Cassini2 ( 956052 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @01:09PM (#49505255)

      Batteries are not cost-effective. The electrical grid must always be balanced. As such, utilities try to find methods of stabilizing the grid without using batteries. Technically this works. However, the economic impact of the guaranteeing a market for subsidized solar and wind power, is another set of hidden subsidies. Ironically, some of these hidden subsidies are going to fossil fuel companies.

      To make a complex story short, the grid must always be balanced. If the power source cannot be controlled (like solar), or if the power source is unreliable (like wind), then it is necessary to make up the difference in some other way. The cheapest methods are to remotely turn on and off loads, and to remotely turn on and off generating stations.

      The problem with starting and stopping loads is that there are not many loads that can be turned on and off remotely, and still accomplish something useful. Ontario has been experimenting with ways to turn off home air-conditioners during the day. Also, big consumers often get a preferred electricity rate, with the understanding that their electricity is "interruptible". However, there is only so much that this can be pushed. People want a cool house. The price of "interruptible" electricity is a few cents per kWh, which is often below cost.

      This brings us to starting and stopping generating stations. A nuclear station takes days to start and stop. A coal station takes on the order of a day to start and stop. A natural gas turbine take about 3 to 6 hours to start. Natural gas (NG) turbines have the ability to run at a "hot-idle", but this is expensive. At "hot-idle" an NG station is still running, it is just not producing power. Hydro power plants (hydro dams) can be started quickly, however unexpected rapid changes in water levels have killed people downstream. As such, very few generating stations can turn on and off as quickly as wind-power changes.

      Probably the best way to solve the problem is to have many small power plants, either small hydro-dams or small NG-turbines, and only turn on and off a fraction of those units at any one time. If the grid operator is required to purchase significant amounts of wind-power, then the grid-operator might have to go very far afield to find a sufficiently large enough pool of existing small generating stations that can be started and stopped quickly. In the case of Ontario, Canada, it needed to pay US power plants to not produce electricity to keep the grid balanced. Ontario has a large energy grid, however Ontario was not large enough to deal with wind-power's fluctuations without external help.

      In the case of Ontario, which is purchasing solar at 90 cents/kWh and wind at 17 cents/kWh under certain existing contracts, then a "hidden" solar/wind subsidy is going to mines and smelters and fossil fuel producers to keep the grid balanced. This subsidy is cheaper than battery and capacitor banks. However, conservation is far cheaper than many of the above schemes.

      Compared to solar/batteries, conservation is the way to go. LED light bulbs almost make sense at current electricity prices. At 90 cents/kWh, converting existing fixtures to LED light bulbs is cheap. Appliances can be moved from electricity to propane or natural gas. Stoves, hot water heaters, furnaces, and even the fridge and air-conditioner can be converted. This is cheaper than paying for battery storage. What little load is left, can then be powered off a roof-top solar / battery system. Conservation is by far the cheapest option.

      • Sorry, all numbers you give here are wrong (or outdated since 50 years)

        I suggest to read wikipedia or google around a bit. Not even a coal plant that was in cold storage for years takes longer than 6h to power up.

        The biggest mistake is your gas turbine: a gas turbine is from cold to 50% - 75% max load in 30 seconds or less, and in less then 5 minutes it is on maximum yield, usually in about one minute

  • Batteries exist (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dr. Spork ( 142693 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:30AM (#49504823)
    It's pretty simple. If the excess power I generate has more value to me if I store it in a battery, rather than sell it to the grid, then I can just cut my connection to the grid. The fact that they're being such jerks would increase my incentive to cut them off.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:38AM (#49504863)

      Batteries need to come down in cost before it makes sense to switch to an off-grid solution. I have a 1kW battery/solar system (not grid-tied) as an emergency power source and I have to replace the lead acid AGM batteries aver 5-7 years at a cost of $500 to $1000.

      The only way to beat the utilities is to go completely off-grid, but that is too expensive at the moment.

      • Beating the utilities that way isn't even a goal that makes sense. Making the utilities work for the public should be the goal. Their function should be to get power to people that need it, when they need it, at the lowest cost consistent with that goal. They should belong to the public so there's no conflict of interest. Once solar systems are installed, they're the lowest cost source because they either produce power or the sit there in the sun not producing power. Generators have to be on line to ma

      • >Batteries need to come down in cost before it makes sense to switch to an off-grid solution.

      • by prefec2 ( 875483 )

        Not really. At least not in Germany. Certain people around the country have calculated that it is cheaper to store their own electricity then giving it away to the grid, while they have to by electricity during the night. For most such installation, they are now 80% independent. True there are still 20% not covered, but consider you get an guarantee price in Germany as a household for selling "renewable" electricity. So this might be different for other countries. Especially, Germany is pretty far north on

    • Re:Batteries exist (Score:4, Insightful)

      by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @01:15PM (#49505279) Journal

      There lies the rub. If you push to much of the burden out to homeowners they just might start going off the grid. A little in improvement in battery or other storage tech and it could happen.

      That is a problem too because it will create a question of capital. If I have the capital resources to invest in a home energy system to go off the grid and say the payback time is 15 years. I and many other people might decide to do just that.

      Where does that leave the people who don't have $30K + maintenance costs to purchase said system? It leaves them on a grid with fewer and fewer customers and probably the customers less dependable for on time payment at that. Because the grid has to go where the people are the fixed operating costs don't go down much, and I doubt the variable costs of distribution are significant. Eventually the local PUC will have to allow distribution and connection fees to go up faced with a bankrupt distributor that nobody will buy and may simply shut its doors otherwise.

      The situation on the generation side too is not entirely dissimilar, although the generation business has more variable costs their are limits to how quickly it can scale down. Certainly not as fast as individual home owners can deploy domestic systems. Plants are built with 60 year anticipated service life, if you suddenly only need to generate only 30% of the power in year 20 you anticipated, it may not be efficient to operate the plant profitably at that level.

      I want to EMPHASIZE STRONGLY I AM NOT ADVOCATING ANY POLICY POSITION in this post but I think its an interesting question because technology that allows middle class folks to go off grid affordably very much has the potential to result in haves and have-nots when it comes to reliable electrical power, while today even the very poor for the most part have dependable electricity in this country(USA).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Luckyo ( 1726890 )

        Going off the grid is silly. The reason we have a grid in the first place is because it's much more efficient (specifically COST efficient) to have centralized production of power that doesn't easily cut off when something goes wrong.

        If you want to go off grid on your own, go for it. I suspect that experiment won't last very long once you discover just how difficult it is to actually maintain a stable 120/220/230V 60/50HZ AC 24/7 that stays in phase. Most people really don't want to go back to third world s

  • by Hadlock ( 143607 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:38AM (#49504861) Homepage Journal

    I was island hopping in the Philippines last week. Coal there is very expensive. Oil there is very expensive. Power, in general, is very, very expensive. An AC unit is within financial means of many people who already own a flat screen TV and/or western game console. Yet they live without air conditioning in very hot/humid conditions. Malls there are really popular as a result.
    The first thing i noticed when I got in a taxi from the airport was the number of Solar + Wind advertisements. Solar has already arrived in SE Asia, and it is here to stay. There's about a billion people in SE Asia outside of China. Solar makes a heck of a lot of sense in the developing world or disconnected parts of the world, where a surprising number of people live. That's right you don't have to go back one sentence, I said a Billion with a 'B'. There's about 30 million people living in the Metro region of Manila without air conditioning because electricity is too expensive. The other half of the country is lucky to have reliable electricity.
    These places exist, and they're prime candidates for distributed solar in a big way. Solar is already cheaper than mains electricity, even installed, even with big import duties. Now they're just waiting for the products to arrive en masse.
    Why does this matter?
    America is still waiting for price parity of mains electricity and home grown solar, but while you can stem the tide of Solar in America temporarily, the price is going to drop like a rock as manufacturers race to supply the third world with Solar, and soon American electric companies will be competing against the price of affordable solar in the third world. It may be five or ten years before Solar truly takes off in the US, but as soon as someone rolls out a $500 "Air Conditioning assist" kit that tells your AC to run at full tilt whenever the solar panels have enough juice to keep it running (who doesn't love coming home to an icy cool house when it's 100F/35C out? especially if that AC was free?), the reasons not to go Solar are going to fall like dominos.

    • You can drive an 18500 BTU window unit with 6 solar panels. What you need is a control box that will turn it on when power is sufficent and turn it off when power is insufficient. (even better if it can scale the cooling to available power as long as power is available).

      If you cool during the day, the house stays cool and you don't have to cool it for several hours when you get home.

      Battery cost has dropped by 94% in 20 years. I think that's going to be a key element. Instead of grid-tie, you just have

      • You're assuming you have a roof. Much of SE Asia in particular (and much of the bigger cities in the US and EU) have condos and apartments. There's not a lot of roof space per household there...
        • The other problem is that many single family homes in the Philippines are poorly insulated. Single pane windows, little or no roof insulation, that sort of thing..

    • by erp_consultant ( 2614861 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:22PM (#49505043)

      "The other half of the country is lucky to have reliable electricity." - You're spot on with that assessment. Brownouts in the Philippines are a way of life. it is particularly bad in rural areas. Many of the condos in Manila boast of their own power supplies independent of government power. Like a lot of other things in the Philippines, rampant corruption and cronyism has ruined nearly every industry. Before cellphones took off there it would take literally years to get a land line phone installed and you would probably have to bribe someone at that. Now just about everyone has a cellphone and the coverage is actually pretty good. The technology literally leapfrogged the old technology and I believe the exact thing will happen with solar once the price of the panels comes down.

    • > Now they're just waiting for the products to arrive en masse.

      For the Phillippines, that was 2014. They went from 3 MW installed in 2013 to 117 MW in 2014 ( [] ).

      Worldwide, installations are expected to increase from 44.2 GW last year to 57 GW this year ( [] ). I think we have reached en masse.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @11:43AM (#49504887)

    Have hierarchies of power distribution.

    Federal... or across state lines

    The management of solar power should be bounced around a neighborhood. It doesn't need to go farther than that. That means the federal, state, county, and city networks all remain clean. No back feeding of power.

    Each segment could also fall under different jurisdictions and be the responsibility of different institutions. That might be helpful or not. It should be done to the extent it is helpful.

    Here some complete asshat will tell me "but in this circumstance it might not be helpful"... then don't do it in that circumstance. I wouldn't need to explain this if reading comprehension were especially dependable on this site.

    Then we really need to work on storage. If these houses can store their power then they might not need to be connected to the grid at all.

  • Change the business model. Make the grid global for generating and load distribution, and everybody can pay a flat fee for infrastructure hookup.

  • by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:20PM (#49505027)
    If really good batteries were available a great option would be to use them as a buffer between the grid and the solar. This way a person would dump their solar into the batteries and generally use the batteries for day to day use. Then if and when the solar couldn't keep up with the demands the grid could be tapped to charge the batteries.

    But as both solar and the batteries get better this would then become a natural migration to where people would go completely off grid and have some sort of crappy generator (that is cheap but possibly not efficient) to top them off on the occasion that they don't have enough.

    Great batteries could even keep the utility relevant for a while by giving them a more reliable source that they could tap when they wanted to from people's homes.

    So right now the utilities are having growing pains as this small but growing source of energy is introduced it is that moment that people actually start going off grid that they have a serious problem. As then they will have to risk raising rates that could drive people off the grid which... then the power company will be left with a scattering of customers who simply can't generate their own power using the space they have. This could be apartments, unlucky houses, hotels, and energy intensive industries. That would be a large grid to maintain for far fewer customers.

    Personally I have found my local power company to act like total scumbags. While this will provide an extra sense of satisfaction when I go off grid it also will harm any "greater good" arguments they might try to make in the future to get subsidies to maintain the grid. Quite simply people won't buy the arguments and assume that they are trying to keep their obscene bonuses and monopoly returns that the shareholders demand.
    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      Many people with rooftop solar are not grid neutral, so the batteries would beed external charging.

  • The power companies could offer people the panels, installation, proper set up and maintenance. You have the money and resources to do it why not make money off those that want to get fully/partially off the grid.

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @12:43PM (#49505153)

    But the rooftop systems are "essentially invisible to us," says Ching, "because they sit behind a customer's meter and we don't have a means to directly measure them."

    Yes, you do.

    Here is a business model for you: pay a low rate for electricity from sources you can't monitor, pay full* rate for electricity where you put a little Internet of Things gizomo on the line to measure (or even control) output from the source. You could even get the homeowners to pay for the gizmo out of future revenue.

    * Yes, I know "full rate" also has its problems, but it'll get set somehow and the point is only IoT installed houses will get that rate.

  • In a ruling 20+ years ago, my city banned rooftop and "visible from the street" solar panels and all wind turbines in a "nuisance" ruling. That same ruling also bans trash cans visible from the street and having any sort of front yard structure to hide them (these structures are allowed on the side of the house). Living on a corner lot where my backyard is partially visible from the street (I could build a fence, but my backyard is small and would likely block the panel), I cannot legally have solar and the

    • by jonwil ( 467024 )

      There is a federal law that makes it illegal for state authorities, local authorities and community associates/home owner associations/etc to have restrictions on the placement of TV antennas and satellite dishes. Maybe there needs to be a similar federal law regarding solar panels.

  • What is management of that power worth? What is spare capacity worth?

    Instead of few to many, the grid has to become many to many. The equations for worth are going to become very complex.

  • As far as I can see these complaints are all coming from investor owned for profit electrical utilities. What do publicly owned electrical districts (like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to name a couple of big ones) have to say? Do they make the same complaints or do they just get on with the business of making it all work? If they're not making the same complaints then I think the complaints of investor owned utilities are more about profits than anything else.

  • by DCFusor ( 1763438 ) on Sunday April 19, 2015 @05:31PM (#49506469) Homepage
    I've been off-grid solar since around 1979. It was just too much money they wanted to run wires to my place in the boonies, so why not? I started small, it's really nice now - even charges my Volt... The entire time, batteries have been the limit - you become a battery expert, or you get broke fast. You learn how to baby those suckers, and you do it, or you'll be replacing them often.

    Most people who put in solar, expect the power co to essentially provide them with free batteries. They in fact aren't free. So they have a point. No, transformers work both ways just fine, and it's quite rare someone has enough to push more net into the grid even at peak times than they would draw at peak times. No one puts up that many panels (room can be an issue even if money isn't). Even though the power co doesn't currently use batteries, the effect is the same - they still have maintenance costs, have to keep wires up, trees off them, and now with this new source, have to be a lot more agile. Older coal and I'd suppose nuclear plants don't ramp up and down quickly as the sun goes behind a cloud, leading to further waste, or having to use faster responding nat gas turbine plants to handle wildly variable loads. I hate to defend these guys - they are evil, no doubt, always have been while I've had this particular company in my neighborhood - their feed-in tariff has varied from 2c/kwh for electricity you produce while charging you 14c/kwh for electricity they sell you - and they demanded two separate meters, so you'd have had to make 7x the electricity you created (after your own use) to just break even. Jerks. For a little while, law made them kinda fair, but they got that overturned first opportunity (they get the best law money can buy, right?). Entitled to a profit...gheesh. Nice to watch from a distance...a great distance. Popcorn helps.

    One advantage to living in the boonies off-grid. The power company is aptly named - they have power to enforce building permits - your stupid local gov delegated that one almost everywhere. No permit required, your PP taxes are nil....heh. So I was able to afford 4 homes, taxed as barns...yeah, the solar cost a lot, as did the batteries, and you have to adapt a bit during the "dark month". But...all in all - I win, they can go and die in a fire. This has little or nothing to do with being green. It's more like I'm Scottish. I don't hate nature, but that's not the motivation. Libre was. Freedom to not have to have a job for monthly bills, and other advantages ruled the decisions. Building my own homes was fun too. And you feel like you've done something net-positive in the world. In the boonies you can get this done before the .gov even realizes you're here. And it's fun when there's a major storm, and the power co brings in outside help that asks if they can give you power - despite being the only place with lights on, and can they read your meter? Yeah, I show them my computerized meters....I've even gotten the comment from them "you can't run a house on that" - while I was actually doing exactly that and had been for decades. Doh!

There are two kinds of egotists: 1) Those who admit it 2) The rest of us