Saturday, October 30, 2010

Geopolitical hubris

(I copied this post over from my college blog because it was about as much about the farm as it was about energy strategy.)

The Guardian has an interesting new article on wireless vehicle charging systems, which reduce the need to plug in your EV.

This kind of new idea, and the massive drop in the price of PV these last two years, makes it seem pretty likely to me that the future of both transportation and diversified energy systems is PV/electric. If wireless power exchange can be made a two-way street, we will secure a major economy on power storage for base load, which makes PV that much more viable.

The average price of solar panels dropped by between 40 and 60% over the last three years. This is because of mass production. New high-tech factories, like the superb Nanosolar factory in California, are now able to crank out very cheap panels very quickly. There have been great economies found in the material inputs, as well as through mechanization of production.

It used to be the the solar cells had to be individually placed on the panel and soldered by a human technician. Now this can all be done by machine. In the case of Nanosolar, the amorphous semiconductor "ink" involved requires no soldering at all.

So, like the technogeek I am, indeed like the cheap Yorkshire-born technogeek I am, I keep checking and rechecking the price of panels online using Google shopper and the like, to see when I'm going to buy my household system.

This is an idea I had a few months ago in response to an online debate with an oil industry researcher, in which I held that PV and wind energy prices were beginning to approach a very general price parity with oil, and even coal, so that, some time in the very near future, the climate denier/fossil fuel industry apologist position that mitigation would be expensive would no longer hold water.

It would then be cheaper to begin to end our use of fossil fuels than to continue, even without considering the cost of climate change.

This is, of course, a turn of events that both OPEC and the Russians do not wish to see occur, but that we should. The strategic gains for the west would be massive.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt and Syria, when OPEC was in the sway of Arab nationalism and anti-Israeli sentiment, it was diversification of the US and UK energy portfolio, including the first Carter-era efficiency gains with North Sea and Alaskan production, that dropped the price of a barrel of oil down to where some OPEC producers really were feeling the pinch.

And, of course, they let go. The embargo was lifted.

This of course led to a recovery of the US and UK positions in the global economy after the former era of "stagflation," and $11/barrel oil fueled the decade of prosperity and high employment we enjoyed in the 1990s and up through 9/11. More recently the pendulum has swung the other way, and the current price of oil gives disproportionate power to countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuala, and their ilk.

All good friends of the west and democracy.


My own idea, my next big project after switching 90% of our home heat to home-grown biomass and super-insulating, another small contribution to the recovery of the west and the triumph of democracy over dictatorship (!), was to fit a solar PV system to our house that would be cheaper than my power bill, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and of course, to geek-up the process, documenting it, and the costs, here.

Since I plan to install this system myself, with one or two students to help or look on for the education value, there's a major saving over the cost to most other American families.

But other than that, I think this a useful test.

Of course, it gets a little complicated. For one thing, electrical power in Maine has very little energy content from OPEC, the Russians, and the other Petrostate dictators whose teeth I wish to see bite the dust.

So the concept is flawed from the get-go.

That's what I get for being an armchair energy geo-strategist.

But bear with me. The price of oil is definitely conditioned by the availability of energy alternatives, and if, eventually, my solar plans turn out as planned, if millions of Americans do the same (as hundreds of thousands of Britons already are thanks to their feed-in tariffs), and, if as is also expected, electric vehicles become cheaper and more easily available and are used for night-time storage, then we'd be able to produce most of our energy using renewables, and then we'd have some leverage, wouldn't we?

Paradoxically, the faster oil prices rise, the sooner we get to deploy this great western-owned technology, reduce our dependence, and get our leverage and geopolitical position back. Ivan knows this too, of course. But he's just about as feckless and stupid as we are when it comes to choosing the right geo-strategic energy policy, so he won't be able to take much comfort in this knowledge.

But back to my micro-scale experiment:

The power supply for our little farmhouse comes from Central Maine Power and costs between 15¢ and 16¢ a kilowatt-hour (counting both the per-KWH delivery and per-KWH energy charges that would be offset, were we to produce our own solar power).

The best solar deals I've found recently involve the purchase of panel/inverter combination kits. These are packaged for contractors, but I can do all the work required myself. My father was a UK electrician. He trained me while I was quite young, and I worked for an US electrical contractor while getting though grad school. I wired this house we live in myself, and I've built several other solar power systems as well.

One such deal currently offered includes six 170 watt panels and an inverter for $8,000.

Getting there, price-wise....

In Maine, on our house, on average for the year, these would produce

6 X 170W x 365 days x 4.5 hours/day = 1,675,350 WH or 1675 KWH

Maine's net metering regulation allows you to credit all this power against your power bill. Our house has a south-facing roof that is a perfect solar site, which would allow almost all of the 4.5 hours/day of sunlight to be converted to electrical energy.

The value of this power to me is therefore 1,675 KWH x 15¢/KWH = $251/year or $21/month.

The cost of the $8,000 solar power system is reduced by the $2,000 or 30% federal tax break.

There's also a state-level rebate of about the same magnitude that would very likely expire in a few months if the most conservative of the candidates currently running for the Governor's Office in Maine were elected.

I can't afford to plonk down even $4,000 cash on such a system, so I'd need a loan. $4,000 on a cheap loan, such as a home equity loan or a secured consumer credit loan, would be about $60/month. On a more expensive loan, such as a credit card, it would be about $100/month. The $21 bucks I would get from net-metering don't begin to pay for the system.

So we're not there yet. Solar PV has to come down by yet another two thirds in price or electrical power go up by two thirds in price, or some combination, before I can realize my ambition.

But we are within the same order of magnitude. And I do think we'll see the price drop/price rise combination over my lifetime, and likely we'll see the solar prices drop a good deal more over the next decade, especially with government help in key places.

I'd be willing to bet on another 50% drop in five years.

My earlier insulation and biomass fuel efforts, on the other hand, have already begun to be paid off by the reduction in energy costs of this house, and have already helped wean the west off oil. The previous occupants used to burn 10 cords of wood and 700 gallons of heat oil a year. Last year we burned 4 cords and less than 50 gallons. Our local forests are burgeoning in biomass, so we don't really worry about adding to carbon in the atmosphere by burning this wood.

So at least one form of solar power, native Maine biomass, is cheap, viable, carbon-neutral, and geo-politically helpful.

That woodsmoke from our chimney is the pure smell of freedom, folks.

Up yours, Vladimir!

I guess I'd better go start the durn thing up, hadn't I?

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