DIY Solar

I’ve been thinking about installing a solar system on our home but the costs, even with tax incentives, are pretty significant when you take into account the rate at which you will pay back the original investment. While we have no intention of selling our home in the near future, it could happen and I’m not entirely convinced that you get a significant payback on your investment in solar when you sell your home.

My equation changed when I learned about Andalay’s homeowner DIY solar system, which features a unique self-contained 175w photovoltaic panel (manufactured by Suntech, I believe) that has integrated wiring, racking, grounding, and interconnects. What this means is that the panels plug together like Lego blocks and eliminate the need for an installer, as long as you are comfortable with getting your hands dirty.

The key question for me was not the panel connections but the manner by which the panel array connects to the homes electrical system. This can get complicated quickly, as would be expected as it involves the main service connection on a 240v service with enough amps to cook you to a crisp in mere seconds. I’m comfortable with mucking around in my houses electrical system but if installing the Andalay system requires having an electrician and/or PG&E come out, then it’s really not such a great deal and I might as well go with a competitive solution that I don’t have to do any of the work for.

I learned that the household connection is remarkably simply and logical, the Andalay array connects to the household service via a simple double pole (240v) breaker installed on the main bus, in other words the Andalay solar panel array looks just like another circuit breaker but instead of drawing power it is supplying power. Basically it appears as simple as mounting the array, running conduit and appropriately sized wire for the service, and installing the breaker.

One unanswered question is how the meter responds to power going out instead of in, but I am assuming it just runs down, in reverse, and PG&E reconciles the usage per the new law that requires them to buy excess solar power at the wholesale rate.

I still have to work up what my array size should be and then calculate my initial cost to install but from what I am seeing so far it looks like this could be a pretty good deal.

The Coming Green Sprawl

A research paper published by the Nature Conservancy is warning of expanded reliance renewable energy leading to a new phenomenon called “green sprawl”. While not critical of renewable energy development the paper’s authors point out that there is another side of the coin to consider as these less efficient means of producing energy resources requires devoting more physical space to accomplish it in.

The stated shift in U.S. energy policies, and the pending Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill,  will require changes in regulatory regimes for land use, and will also likely accompany a shift in power from state and local regulatory agencies to the Federal level. This is inevitable as the reliance on domestically produced renewable energy will demand Federal government oversight at the expense of states rights.

Another policy consequence of renewable energy development is going to be agriculture policy as it is unlikely that corn and soybean lobbies will back off political pressure to develop ethanol and biodiesel mandates as part of our evolving energy policy. With a finite amount of sustainable farm land and the economics of fuel crops over food crops will pull farm land away from food production to fuel production, leading to greater frequency and amplitude of price swings in the commodity markets.

The impact on agriculture policy is particularly interesting to consider when the substantial economic subsidies provided by the Federal government to farmers are taken into account. Will the shift from food crops to fuel crops drive Congress to pump more taxpayer dollars to farmers as an incentive for maintaining food crop production for domestic use and for export? Not only is this plausible, it’s entirely likely as a reduction in food exports would drive up the trade deficit, because the stated goal of domestic renewable energy production is to fuel domestic use.

green sprawl

This study points out what is widely known, ethanol, biodiesel, and burning of biomass for electricity are the most intense land users of all the available options. Essentially the problem is that if energy crop production occurs in land previously devoted to food crops, the resulting distortion of global commodity markets may drive less efficient agricultural expansion in far away places.

Habitat and wildlife disruption is also a consideration here as this report points out that the clearing of land represents only 3-5% of the total disruption imposed by wind turbine farms, with 95-97% of the disruption to wildlife occurring from habitat disruption, pattern avoidance and bird mortality from continuing operation of these turbine farms.

A perfect example of the tension that exists between renewable energy construction and environmental advocates is the recent bill proposed by Senator Feinstein that would create two national monuments in California’s Mojave Desert, which would have the effect of stopping development of 13 large solar and wind turbine projects currently under development. I ask you, if we can’t put a solar farm in the middle of the desert where can we put it?

This habitat disruption is not limited to wildlife either, here in California a landmark bill was signed into law that requires utilities to buy excess electricity generated by solar arrays installed on homes. It is projected that this law will generate a 3x expansion of solar in California.

Consider the implication of a dramatic expansion of solar arrays that reflect sunlight as much as consume it. Homeowners in the many hills of the Bay Area and Southern California could be faced with blinding reflected light as a result. In all major urban areas planning commissions require homeowners and commercial developers to take into account the immediate environmental impacts of their construction, which means that if my downhill neighbor want to a put a bleached white roof and a massive solar array on his roof and the result is a sustained intense glare reflected into my house, there is a process by which I can object and slow down the project with the strong potential for ultimately stopping it.

The report authors were diligent in pointing out that in any of the scenarios they studied, the actual increase in energy requirements by 2030 could be significantly mitigated by conservation measures. Related to that, improvements in efficiency of the full range of renewable energy solutions will also bring improvements.

Under every scenario the Nature Conservancy report considered the land use requirements were eye popping with at least 79.5 thousand square miles of area required by 2030, an area slightly larger than the entire state of Nebraska. Taking into account the transmission grid and supply chain contingencies for committing this large of an area, it is unconceivable that we would develop it as a single or even regional dense energy zone. What is more likely is that energy production would be broadly distributed in areas not accustomed to having these resources located close by.

As the U.S. moves to energy policy that emphasizes renewable energy development, we would be wise to consider the impacts on land use and agriculture policy as well as recognize that the relationship between state and federal governments cannot and should not be trampled in process.

UPDATE: As if on cue the Merc runs a story this afternoon basically reinforcing my post:

“But critics — including some environmentalists — say green energy isn’t always green. In a refrain being heard increasingly across California, they contend the plan to cover this ranch land with a huge solar project would harm a unique landscape and its wildlife.”

Solar industry growth dimming with economy

The good news is that solar is still growing at a pretty good clip, the bad news is that like almost every other durable good and infrastructure industry it is tied to pedantic factors like financing. I find it incredibly troubling that an entire industry is banking on increasing federal subsidies, on top of what is already a generous subsidy, in order to remain viable.

Barry Cinnamon, chief executive of Akeena Solar in Los Gatos, said his firm’s solar installation business has slowed from a growth rate above 40 percent to something more in the 25 to 30 percent range. He hopes that falling prices for solar arrays, coupled with more generous federal tax incentives, will re-energize orders.

[From Solar industry growth dimming with economy]

We still don’t have the right mix of incentives and structural accommodations for solar in the U.S., which reflects a non-existent national energy policy. Even with tax incentives the cost of solar is prohibitively high and the strategy of feeding the power grid until your bill goes to zero is not enough to deliver a reasonable pay back period. If you are generating electricity you should be paid for it, period.

The other related technology that requires a national push to establish technology leadership is batteries. For homeowners the appeal of solar is dented by the fact that you don’t have access to it during peak hours. I am skeptical that the Federal, or any state government, can pull off such a feat because we lack precedent in organizing technology investments by government directed at a specific industry. Remember that effort in the 1980′s by the Feds to retain U.S. dominance in the RAM business? Failed, big time.