We have all seen those big power plants outside cities that provide power — historically from coal, oil and nuclear and now more recently, natural gas. These utility power plants have served us well for over a century. But technology is passing them by. These old central generation power plants are obsolete. They are more expensive than power generated by wind, solar and energy storage. Even some of the newest gas peaker plants under construction are destined to be obsolete within a decade. New power generating technologies – solar, wind, battery storage, distributed energy resources, virtual power plants, etc. — are steadily improving in terms of cost, duration and reliability.
Unfortunately, commercial and residential electricity customers are saddled with the costs of existing power plants, even ones that have been installed recently. Utilities pass their costs of power generation, transmission and distribution directly to ratepayers. Moreover, utilities are guaranteed a 10% profit based on their net assets. Although they do indeed care about reliability and safety, utilities actually make more money when they own a lot of assets (higher profits) and charge high prices for power (higher revenues).
These new clean, inexpensive power generation and storage technologies are turning the utility industry upside down. Commercial and residential customers can essentially purchase their own power plants for less money than utility-provided power. Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we review the deteriorating economics of utility-based power plants, as well as the implications these new technologies are having on consumers throughout the United States.
We take it for granted that you can install solar on your home or business anytime, just as you can make any other energy saving improvement. Unfortunately, the reality is there are a host of restrictions on solar and battery storage. Many of these restrictions are due to arbitrary regulations (solar panels cannot be visible from the street), as well as rules promulgated by utilities to maximize their profits. Riddle me this, Solarman: why does your local utility encourage you to install an 8 kw EV charger, but makes it extremely complicated (sometimes impossible) to install a 2 kw rooftop solar system?
Incumbent industries have economic power behind them. Utilities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to suppress competition from rooftop solar, compared to the million or so dollars spent by most state solar industries. But polls show that 95% of the population favors solar. Although the solar industry is at a financial disadvantage, there are tens of millions of people in the U.S. that benefit – either directly or indirectly – from the solar industry. The challenge is organizing this grass roots army to advocate for cleaner and and more affordable energy sources.
The Solar Rights Alliance was founded to empower these millions of solar citizens. Its mantra is everyone should have the right to generate his or her own power directly from the sun — and that no monopoly or special interest should try to block or own the sun.
Our special guest on this week’s Energy Show is Dave Rosenfeld, Executive Director of the Solar Rights Alliance. He’s spent his career building movements and institutions that expand freedom, liberty and justice including work with the National Public Radio, The Public Interest Research Group, and the Public Interest Network. Grass roots advocacy has been effective in making many big changes in our democracy, and Dave is working hard to deploy this growing army of solar enthusiasts to make solar cost effective and available to everyone.
Solar combined with battery storage seems like magic to many residential and commercial customers. With a million and a half systems installed in the U.S., the question is no longer: “does solar work?” Instead, customers want to know how much money they will save with a system. And commercial customers are even more diligent about accurate savings predictions.
There are a plethora of “solar calculators” on websites all over the internet. But these crude calculators do not take into account detailed weather data, shading, orientation, equipment parameters and utility rates. Surprisingly, the utility rate information is hard to get, extremely detailed, and changes more often than import tariffs. And correlating hourly solar output data with these utility rates, time periods, rate tiers, fixed fees and demand charges can be a programming nightmare. I’ve had experience with huge spreadsheets that did these calculations for rates all over the country. Just thinking about a spreadsheet with 35,000 rows of 15 minute interval data is enough to make me reach for the Advil.
Traditionally, solar performance calculators only had to model energy flows in two directions: to the building or to the grid. With batteries there is a third path for the energy to flow, making it exponentially more complicated to optimize savings from a particular system design. Dedicated software tools such as Energy Toolbase provide an accurate software platform for modeling the economics of solar and storage products — and also provide professional proposal tools.
My guest on this week’s Energy Show is Adam Gerza, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Toolbase. Adam gained his solar chops after many years in the commercial solar industry. He knows the business and knows how to crunch the numbers. So leave the headaches to Energy Toolbase, and listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we speak with Adam about his company, solution and the solar + storage market.
Energy storage is critical to our ability to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Basically, we need a way to store the abundance of daytime solar and use this energy at night. Although lithium ion batteries have been getting most of the attention, fuel cells provide another way to convert fuels into electricity.
A fuel cell is an electro-chemical cell that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a reaction of hydrogen or another hydrocarbon fuel, such as gasoline or natural gas, with oxygen. The history of fuel cells goes back over a hundred years — in fact, their first commercial use came from NASA to power orbital space craft. Fuel cells are different than batteries because a battery produces energy from a chemical reaction that is already in the battery, whereas a fuel cell requires a continuous source of fuel and oxygen to sustain the chemical reaction. The great thing about fuel cell technology is they can continue to supply energy for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.
However, fuel cells can either be clean and renewable power sources — or just as polluting as fossil fuels — depending on their fuel source. Currently, most fuel cells use hydrogen as their fuel. Although the chemical reaction of hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen is emission-free (the only byproduct is water), the source of the hydrogen is problematic. Almost 100% of the hydrogen gas used for fuel cells and industrial processes comes from reforming natural gas. As a result, just as much CO2 is produced when hydrogen is used as a fuel, as if the natural gas were to be combusted directly. Nevertheless, future processes in which ordinary water is electrolyzed into its components hydrogen and oxygen can indeed produce hydrogen perfectly cleanly — as long as solar or wind are used to power the process.
More and more fuel cells are finding their way into the conventional power and transportation industries. Bloom Energy is successfully selling their natural gas-powered fuel cells to customers that need a reliable source of backup power. And Toyota has rolled out their Murai hydrogen fuel cell car in areas that have sufficient hydrogen filling stations (most of which are in California). For more about the underlying technology and opportunities for fuel cells, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.
When a business or homeowner gets a new rooftop solar installation, the second question they always ask is “how often do I need to clean my solar panels.” We’ll answer that question on this week’s show — taking into account the different effects of rain, dust and electric rates. BTW, the first question people always ask is “how do I read my electric bill;” but that’s a topic for another show.
Rooftop solar panels get dirty primarily from wind-blown dust and pollen. Birds are usually not a problem unless your last name is Hitchcock and you live in Bodega Bay. As panels get dirtier, their output declines. A small amount of soiling — say a light dusty film — may only cause a 5 percent output decline. However, when panels get very dirty — perhaps in an agricultural area or location that does not get regular rainfall — the output decline can be greater than 20 percent. A good heavy rainstorm will usually wash away most of the accumulated soiling.
I use the term “usually” because on panels that are tilted at about 5 degrees or less, the rain may leave a puddle of muddy debris along the lower edge of the panel. When this puddle dries, sometimes a thick layer of dirt accumulates along the lower row of cells (sometimes moss and weeds may even grow in these areas). Depending on the design of the system, this small accumulation of dirt can cause a very significant decrease in output.
So the answer to the question: “how often should I clean my solar panels” really depends on five factors: your location (does it rain regularly or only during certain months), the tilt angle of your panels (steeply tilted panels tend to stay much cleaner than panels that are close to horizontal), the amount of wind blown dust, your electric rate (if your electric rate is high then it is more worthwhile to clean your panels), and the cost to clean your panels.
If you have a large solar array at a low tilt angle in a dry climate with high electricity costs, our basic advice is to clean your panels once a year. Under these circumstances the additional electricity output from clean panels will be much greater than the cleaning costs. On the other hand, if you have a small array in an area that rains regularly, then it may only make sense to clean your panels every five years or so. Here in California it generally does not make a lot of sense to clean your panels in the late fall or winter during the rainy season.
Regardless of your circumstances, please make sure you clean your panels with soapy or treated water to prevent damage from mineral deposits. Contact your solar contractor or maintenance company if you would like your system cleaned professionally. For more about keeping your solar system operating at top efficiency, please Listen Up to this week’s edition of the Energy Show.