Monday, August 22, 2011

New rules for a changing energy landscape

How do you find an equitable solution to the solar question?

I try to understand the whole energy issue. I have studied the history of the electrification of America, from the Rochdale Principals to the first hydro plant purchased by James Buck Duke and his subsequent decades of philanthropy. I have studied The french physicist A. E. Becquerel who discovered the photovoltaic effect, Thomas Edison's pursuit of a DC electric grid and his loss of market and eventual dominance of John Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla's AC grid.

The reason I have done this is because I knew very little about electricity before getting involved in solar except that I like electricity and want to continue to have access to it.

I have been extremely lucky in that I have been invited to see a working hydro, coal and nuclear plant. For someone who grew up loving motors and horsepower this has been fantastic, a lifetime memory. I have seen the immense raw power that drives our way of life and keeps our economy running. The bone tingling hum of 125MW of hydro turbines is more impressive than an F15 fighter jet or a 1000cc motorcycle at 150mph. I like to think I get it, the grid is immense, powerful, complicated and difficult to maintain. All of the people who run and operate electrical distribution or generation should be proud of what they do and are greatly under-appreciated. I recently had a capacitor break on my condensing unit in July during a 99' day, I sincerely recognize that electricity is the life blood of South Carolina.

I am a solar guy, I always will be. What does that mean? It means that I have looked at all the energy generation methods available to us, including fusion and I have come to the conclusion that only one resource can eventually permanently satisfy our energy needs and that is solar power.

The earth is a closed system, the only thing entering our atmosphere is photons from the sun. We are told the earth is round so we have finite resources other than the sun. That being said I need to emphasize that I said eventually. Solar today cannot directly compete with the energy output of coal or nuclear. Both of these combined currently account for 70% of our total electrical power generation in the US. I believe we currently consume 374 Terawatts or 374 trillion watts annually. This is a lot of power!

Solar today accounts for less than 1% of that power. If we covered every roof in the state with today's solar we could get 25% of our daytime power from solar. So the technical challenges are huge. I recognize that SC is a nuclear state with heavy investments from the federal government in research and development. Does this make SC mutually exclusive when we talk about starting a solar industry; far from it, I think it means we have a much higher threshold of integration before we have to worry about dispatchability or base load generation issues.

I also recognize we are asking for a new paradigm from our electrical generation and distribution companies. We want cheap, reliable, electricity all the time and we want you to shoulder the burden of research and development of the next generation of electrical production today at no cost to us the rate payers and members.

So how do we come together, the people of South Carolina, those that want solar and the thousands of engineers and other hard working professionals who provide today's electrical needs? Luckily I think it is possible, with careful steps, open dialogue and economic development we can achieve a new set of rules for this changing electrical industry.

Solar in North Carolina has been regulated and mandated. What has this achieved? 1350 solar jobs created during the recession, $300m dollars of economic activity and less than 1% increase in rates for North Carolina. This seems to be a positive step towards economic development, grid security and job creation.

It all has happened with no meaningful impact to the overall health and well-being of NC power generation and distribution companies. So if we promise to take into account the history, economics and politics of our energy landscape I am sure we can find willing partners to build a solar industry in the state we all love and live in.

Andrew Streit is the founder of the Solar Business Alliance, a trade association created to foster the growth of solar energy in SC.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Solar will continue to grow

NC dominates Renewable energy in the SE but everyone I know in solar is eking by in this downturn and slow recovery despite the lack of incentives, low energy costs in SC, and uncertain economic outlook.

Why is that? I think it can be boiled down to three key issues.

1. It has been pointed out very well by a part-time SC resident and very successful oil investor Richard Rainwater. Back in 2001, Mr. Rainwater forecast oil at $129 a barrel. This is pre-Katrina. He had read a book called The Limits of Growth that scarily portends fights for scarce natural resources and a growing world population that can’t be fed without fossil fuel. So the first issue is energy. We need it and don’t have enough of it. Everyone quietly recognizes that we will have to create sustainable reserves of hydro-carbon fuel replacements. I believe that comes partly from electricity. We need mass transport-ation and personal transportation from electricity because we can produce it more efficiently than burning fossil fuels. We also need to find a way to produce new oil—not by drilling, but by massive algae farms that absorb Co2 and produce oil. I am not a scientist so if algae aren’t feasible there has to be something. Let’s find it.

2. The reason is weather. I think we have all seen record temperatures this year, maybe not in SC where it is always hotter than just about anywhere in the summer, but just as scientists predicted: tornadoes in MA, snow in UT in May, record heat waves across the US. No scientist ever said global warming would be predictable; just that it would impact known weather patterns and could hamper world food growth. Solar can play a small part in slowing this process.

3. We have economic returns. Everyone wants predictable costs in the future and solar can provide that. While the payback is long in SC, the risk return is great. As we get older, the investment looks better and better. Most people won’t outlive their solar install, which should be a great feeling. NASA has panels from the 1960s that still generate voltage. That’s a safe bet in my book.