Monday, January 31, 2011

"Why Don't My Solar Panels Work?"

That was the question asked by one of my neighbors yesterday, whilst discussing the increasing cost of electricity. This neighbor had taken advantage of one of those Obama Administration Green Energy Boondoggles, and had a series of solar panels installed on her roof at great expense, but still saw her utility bills dramatically rise.

Her general belief was that with the simple installation of solar panels, she would be getting "free" electricity in return. That's the first mistake she made, and I'm sure many people make the same miscalculation, if only because they don't stop to get the facts first.

The second mistake she made was that believing she was getting "free" electricity, that she could increase her own consumption astronomically. Why not leave the lights burning? Why not do more, and smaller, loads of laundry as I need them? Yes, let's get that third television, that second refrigerator, that fancy outdoor lighting I've always wanted but couldn't afford to pay for?

The result? Electric bills which have nearly doubled.

What this neighbor had failed to understand was just what it is that a solar panel actually does.

To begin with, a home-based solar panel does not generate electricity; it simply heats water. If you want to generate electricity from sunlight, you need a photovoltaic cell, which is something completely different. Most home solar systems are simple heat-collectors which use sunlight in order to heat a ready-supply of water for showers, washing, baseboard heating and so forth, the advantage being that you will use less gas or electricity to do those things than you normally would. Typically, one does not replace their traditional electric or gas-operated hot water systems when installing solar panels (nor should you!), because solar panels are reliant upon good weather -- if it's overcast or raining, your solar panel is useless.

A solar heating system is an adjunct, or supplement, but not a replacement. In this case, the neighbor replaced some of her gas-operated appliances in favor of electric ones, but was generating no electricity, and her furnace was still burning gas in order to heat water on the days when the solar panels were not working properly or efficiently. She hadn't really "saved" anything.

At best, she simply returned a few hundred cubic feet of natural gas per year (the typical home uses about 600-1200 cubic feet of gas in a year) back into "the System" (i.e. that the utility company did not have to sell to her) where someone else could make use of it, and naturally, I'm certain that someone did. This individual contribution to Mother Gaia is exceedingly small in the grand scheme of things, and so a few scores of people in your neighborhood installing solar panels to save on the gas bill really only brings marginal benefits; they may lower their overall bills by a few hundred dollars per year, but they only marginally increase the ready supply of natural gas available for everyone else, which is quickly sold and used, in any case.

In this woman's case, whatever she had saved by using less natural gas, she quickly lost when she ramped up her electric consumption under the mistaken impression that she was getting something for nothing.

This is one of the major flaws in the whole Green Energy motif; people come to believe that something, because it comes from the Sun, the Wind, or the Tides, is "free", or at least not-as-expensive. They believe this because a) most people are dumber than dogshit, and b) because that's how the whole Green Energy thing is sold to them.

I know, because I used to "sell" Green Energy, but I fully admit to not being a true expert in all the inner-workings of the entire industry.

See, this is how you (usually) get electricity. It's a very basic explanation, so spare me the technical e-mails. It's for the benefit of the layman:

Someone builds a generator. This is typically a very large magnet stuck on the end of a rotating shaft, the whole assembly attached to a turbine. This shaft/turbine assembly is surrounded by a thick coil of copper cables. The turbine is made to rotate at very high speeds, causing the magnet and coil to interact, warping the magnetic fields of both the magnet and the coil. This manipulation of the magnetic field aligns the electrons within the copper and then sets them into motion (this is electric current) down the wires and cables that emanate from the power plant, and connect to your home.

There are typically two ultra-efficient ways to get these turbines spinning at the speeds required to generate this constant electric current;

a. Water power (Hydro-electric power): rapidly-moving water falling down a waterfall (like Niagara Falls), or artificially dammed and released (like Hoover Dam) spins the turbine.

b. Steam generation; a heat source (produced from burning oil, coal, gas, or generated by splitting atoms) heats water to boiling. This steam is then collected and concentrated (super-heated) under pressure, so that when it is released it has enough power behind it to spin that turbine super-quickly.

After thousands of years of human progress, we're still using the same basic mechanisms: the Wheel, Fire, the Steam Engine, and capturing kinetic energy. In any case, we're using energy to create energy. There is nothing"free" about it. You have to construct a super-expensive kit in order to capture or create the energy needed to generate electricity, and a portion of the energy that comes out of the process is wasted due to the principles of resistance (current does not flow uninterrupted down a wire), and the laws of Physics: you can't have more energy coming out of the process than what you've put into it. Also, electricity is an on-demand commodity; it cannot be stored easily or cheaply in vast quantities, like oil or coal. You'd better use every volt you generate as soon as it's generated, or it gets lost. This makes the price jump up or down according to supply and demand, only much faster than many other commodities, because it's a "spot" market.

You can, to a certain extent, calculate how much energy goes into the process, and then regulate the amount that comes out, but this is not an exact science, and inefficiencies abound.

Green Energy methods promise (but never deliver) the ability to do away with some of the more odious aspects of power generation, particularly the need to burn fossil fuels, but the methods currently available are not reliable enough to chuck the whole "burn-something-to-generate- steam-and-spin-a-turbine-model".

Wind Turbines do away with the need to burn something and, thus, generate no pollution, but the wind is unreliable, and the turbines themselves are incapable of generating much power individually because of the complex gearing involved. That's why wind farms contain hundreds of windmills, take up several hundred acres of land, and produce negligible amounts of electricity for what they cost to build and operate.They also require specialist maintenance crews who get paid a shitload of money to climb one or two hundred feet up a mast to work with a giant fan that can easily kill them. You'll usually also see hundreds of dead birds at the base of a wind generator -- the birds get caught in the blades, fly into them, or they nest on the tall masts and fall out/get diced and sliced.

Tidal Generators work much like any windmill or hydroelectric plant, but they use the power of the tides to spin their turbines. Since most places usually only have two high tides a day for a few hours each, the tidal generator spends much of the day inactive. When it works it generates a powerful flow of electricity, but it can't operate on-demand 24/7/365. It too, is inefficient.

Geothermal plants take advantage of the Earth's heat. Built over natural hot springs and steam vents, geothermal plants use the steam that comes up from underground to spin a turbine and generate electricity. There's only one problem: that steam usually contains poisonous and corrosive compounds that can be deadly to man, and which are absolute hell on machinery, meaning a geothermal plant must be built with specially-constructed, high-tolerance materials, and is a maintenance nightmare -- not to mention the problems inherent in "scrubbing" emissions from the plant itself, so that dangerous gases and chemical compounds are not released into the air and environment.

In fact, the only truly efficient methods we have available to us that don't require fossil fuels are hydroelectric power and nuclear power. Both are bad juju to the environMENTAL activists; one scars the landscape, inconveniences fish and interferes with the natural flow of rivers and streams. The other produces small amounts of radioactive waste that has to be stored somewhere until it can either be reprocessed, or the radioactivity dissipates enough for it to be released back into the environment. This is the dilemma which faces the Green Energy crowd: their current solutions are unworkable, and the alternatives don't pass muster with people determined to nit pick them to death. Damn efficiency, progress or good sense.

And of course, it's all super-expensive.

Why, when I sold Green Energy, we never told a potential customer that he would "save money" by buying electricity or gas obtained/generated by Green Methods, because that was a virtual impossibility. Generating that sort of power in a Green fashion costs more than the traditional methods. No, instead we always sold Green Energy as a matter of social consciousness and "displacement". I'll explain.

The social conscious part is self-explanatory. People want to do things they perceive as "good". In fact, most people are simply begging to do something good, because they get a high off of it, or because it makes them feel superior to others. Most people are absolute douchebags, after all. Selling Green Energy as a way to "clean the environment", "Save the Planet" or even as a means to "Stick it to The Man" was an easy sell. There are people in the world who are swayed by such arguments, perhaps 1-in-20, because they are that stupid or committed.

The Displacement Theory takes a little explaining. It was generally suggested that for every kilowatt hour you bought that was generated by Green Methods, you were "displacing" a kilowatt hour generated by "dirty" means, i.e. that was one less kilowatt hour that would have to be generated by burning coal or gas. And if enough people bought Green Energy, then by God, we'd do away with the fossil fuel-burning power plant altogether by pushing the output of those evil machines right off the grid.

Ummm, no.

First off, you have absolutely no way, short of running a cable directly from the windmill to your front door to know whether the electricity you get is Green or not. It all goes into the same Grid. Once power is generated, your nice, clean Green Energy gets mixed in with the Dirty Energy you used to get from Con Ed or Duke Power. There is no way to distinguish between the "Good" electricity and "the bad".

Second, utility companies that have more generating capacity then they need usually don't just shut the lights, close the plant down and quit the business; they try to find more customers for it. Especially since they're producing their power at cheaper rates (after all, if there's more expensive Green stuff in the grid, then their power becomes cheaper by comparison), and selling it at cheaper rates. Given a choice between "Good for Mother Earth, but twice the cost" and "Cheap, Readily-available and Reliable" guess which choice most people (remember; most people are stupid, easily-swayed, lowest-common-denominator douchebags, now) will make?

And in any case, the investment made in constructing the original electric grid/gas delivery systems was so great, the utility companies have a financial interest in keeping them running and profitable, and are happy to simply maintain those delivery methods without having to generate any extra power to pump through them. See, when you Go Green, you're buying power that still has to be delivered to you through your traditional utility company, because they own the means of distribution. You usually see that on your bill as an increased"Delivery Charge"; since the utility has lost you as a power consumer, they'll make sure they rape you on delivery. You'll either come back, or you'll suck it up and decide that's the cost of being Green -- and they can sell the energy they would have provided you to someone else -- and still profit.

But at least you'll get a Carbon Credit -- which doesn't really exist, is difficult to trade, and which has no fixed monetary value -- and if you do manage to sell/trade it on the sham Carbon Markets, it basically means you have given someone else the right to pollute on your behalf, with your blessing. And somewhere in there, someone will have made a buck, but it won't be you.

In fact, when the Green Energy companies can't produce the electricity they need to satisfy their customer's demand, what do you think they do? They buy it on the open market from the people who make the dirty stuff and re-sell it, of course! It's the only other supply.

My usual sales meeting, usually with people who had expressed an interest about buying Green Energy, mind you, with a customer usually went something like this:

We can give you all the electricity you need, no problems. We have a great many suppliers who can feed us with all the Green Energy we can handle.

That's great.

And you will be doing something positive for the environment. You'll be helping to clean the air, streams, and oceans, and saving wildlife, too, by helping to reduce acid rain, and helping to do away with some of the dirtier aspects of power generation.

I'm always looking to make a positive impact, YESSSIRRREEE! Why,that sounds fantastic! I was always wondering when someone would get around to making Green Energy a reality! It's been one of my interests for years. It's why I joined Greenpeace, you know!

That's super! In fact, not only can we can guarantee you all the power you need, you will never have to worry about service, either; you can simply call your current utility provider, and they'll still come and fix any problems you have with access or distribution, because they still own it -- we only sell them power which they pass on to you. We can also promise that the energy we produce will be as clean as humanly possible.

Wonderful! Fantastic! It's about time!

Also, for every so-many kilowatt hours you purchase, you'll be getting a Carbon Credit, which you can trade on the open market. That's a valuable commodity, these days. It's a good reason to go Green, isn't it?

Wow! This is sounding better all the time!

So, here you are: you can get the energy you need, generated by clean methods, which is best for the environment and saves polar bears and Aborigines; you don't need to swap service providers so you can retain the expert and reliable services of your current power company, and in the process, you'll be gaining valuable Carbon Credits which you can sell for a profit. Everyone wins!

Sounds like it! So, how much does it cost?

Well, you'll be signing a five-year contract (don't tell them about the substantial fees involved for breaking the contract before the first year is up). I have to tell you that the price is slightly higher, about 8-10% higher, than what you're paying now, BUT we guarantee that your price will never increase for any reason at any time during that five year period. And when you consider that you'll at least know for certain what your power costs will be for the next five years -- this helps you considerably when budgeting, you know -- and that you're doing something positive for the world -- and your children -- and that you also get Carbon Credits that you can sell at a profit for it, it's a great deal, don't you think?

Oh, umm, sorry, but....ahhh....that sounds a little too expensive for my tastes, and I didn't realize it would mean a five-year contract. Thank you for your time, and I'm sorry we couldn't do business.

Even those most committed to being Green bail out when they find out how much Green it's going to cost them.

The whole thing was about as close to a legal scam as it was possible to get. There was nothing inherently illegal or immoral about what we were doing, but it wasn't exactly on the up-and-up, either. It depended on the stupidity of legions of people who were under the impression that they were going to get something cheap -- if not free -- with the added benefit that they could brag to their friends about it.

Now, I don't mean all this to be a knock on people who buy solar panels for their homes. Or even of Green Energy, in general; there's a place for it. But it won't replace the existing apparatus without great investment and advances in technology which at present are not cost-effective, and not exactly forseeable. When everything is known -- the purchaser understands exactly what he's buying and what he's getting for his money, and especially the limitations and obligations that come with it-- Solar Panels on your Roof, Windmills on the Plains and Geothermal plants at Yellowstone aren't a bad idea, per se. Just remember the ironclad rule that applies to the generation, distribution, usage and regulation of power:

Nothing is ever free. And if someone sold you a solar panel outfit without telling you exactly what it was good for and how you were supposed to use it, then you shouldn't complain about skyrocketing energy bills.

My neighbor is a little bit wiser now, and was embarrassed to find out just how wrong she had been in her assumptions. Don't make the same mistake yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are PV (electric) solar panels available for home use. We have them on our roof. They sit on the 25% of our roof that leans south and produce enough electricity to offset all of our electricity use....we get a small check from the utility company every month instead... of the other way around. (In our area, right now PV solar pays off faster than Hot water solar because most hot water heaters are natural gas and natural gas is cheap---about 8 years for that payoff vs. 5 or so for PV) Ours are monocrystalline silicon, very long 30+ year track record, 25 year warranty made in US. Buy good panels, good inverters, do your homework first! AND MAKE SURE they aren't hooked up backwards! plus/neg. end just like a battery.