Sunday, April 29, 2012

Does Solar have a bright future

Many things in our society have a short shelf life. Think the first 'brick' satellite phone, Betamax and VHS videotape, Boombox's... you get the idea.
 I am convinced though that solar will not be one of these items in as much as the underlying technology of direct harvesting of the sun's energy will prevail.
Is today's solar as ungainly as an Atari or leather cased phone, possibly but power directly from the sun is here to stay. Change can be painful and frightening, my early memories are of the English countryside where paths were 1000yrs old, castles were over the next hill and pubs worth their salt were older than anyone living. I have a deep appreciation for history, tradition and architecture.
Despite this or maybe because of it I would like to see solar power incorporated into every new building and retrofitted to as many existing buildings as possible. Not because I make my living with solar, but because solar will contribute to my living in the future.

To be interested in solar you have to have studied our energy history and our energy production today. You also have to clearly look at the next 50yrs of uncertainty and change with resolve. America is covered when it comes to electricity production, we use 50% coal powered plants today, we have over 100yrs of coal reserves and a lot of natural gas, we have 104 Nuclear power plants with more to come. Our society will not collapse tomorrow if we don't revolutionize our energy production methods for electricity, so rest easy. 

We do however have to start planning for where our electricity will come from when these reserves deplete. Reason number one is that anytime you are dependent on one resource you are exposed to price spikes and manipulation. Secondly you are guaranteed ever increasing energy prices as fuel sources are depleted. Lastly these are finite resources and we do not currently have an alternate resource plan. This glaring truth is where the uncertainty and challange comes in. We cannot forever continue to do as we have done and this is frightening even to me and I see a prosperous future where we have a sustainable future.

Today the nation gets 47% of its oil from outside sources, we have multinational corporations who no-longer feel the United States is their primary customer and even if the US is their biggest customer they will do whatever they can to promote shareholder value. If you look back to 2008, the price of gas sucked the wind out of the economy as much as housing. 30yr mortgages don't unravel overnight even if they were sub-prime. The engine lost gas when gas was $5. I am not vilifying big oil I am stating a fact, when your corporation is publicly held, in many, many countries and held to higher standard in their host country it can be easy to forget that the fabric of this nation is based on capitalism but that a strong domestic economy is imperative to the overall health of the company.

American Oligarchs of old did not lose sight of the fact that as they prospered and their employees prospered so did the nation. James Buck Duke saw this and in later life he endowed several Universities, hospitals and other 'greater benefit' projects throughout the Southeast US.  Andrew Carnegie got this too and while both men fought unions and wanted to protect their companies they also saw that corporate re-investment into the fabric of society is the strength that builds companies for generations.

I once read of a house in England that was over 400yrs old, the first owner of the house had planted the tiny seedling of a  great oak when he built the home so that one day the tree could replace the main beam in the great hall, that is resource planning.  To be completely honest I see solar as resource planning but also an expression of the sublime, a sound design with a noble cause.  If more of us could figure out how to both be successful in business and try and create the sublime what a nation this could be.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why Solar

I was asked this week why I wanted government help for solar. It was actually a pretty reasonable question considering all the bad news about solar both locally and nationally. It has taken me literally six years to come up with an answer to the question, “Why solar and why should the government be involved?” First I want to list all the bad things I have seen in the solar industry and also by people professing to have something to do with solar but really just being crooks. The first company I worked for left 2 wires exposed in a circuit box, they were dead but it still bothers me. Solyndra: My personal thoughts are the Federal Government shouldn’t be on the supply side—that’s nationalism. They can, however, help foster demand for a product through tax incentives or deregulation. (Solyndra was a pretty novel idea but they didn’t know that market conditions for all of their competition were about to cut costs by 40% right when Solyndra opened a huge new factory.) Evergreen First Solar Q cells AQT Solar PrimeStar Solar/ GE (GE bought thin film maker Prime star for approx $300m) All of these solar companies have either gone bankrupt or laid people off. Here is the connection between them all. There are two types of solar, Silicon which is made out of sand and Thin-film which is made out of rare earth metals. Some of these typically used metals are cadmium, telluride and indium.
Silicon makes up 27% of the earth’s crust, we have a lot of it and it’s recyclable. The cost of silicon has gone from $475kg in 2009 to sub $30kg in 2012 and it is still headed lower. (If you want to know why, I have another letter Now locally South Carolina has had some missteps too. Solar EOS, Kingstree SC. I knew they were going to be unsuccessful the first time I met them, but no one asked me. Prior to meeting in person I did invite them to join SBA and they did, for one year. After I met the COO and he knew nothing about solar energy, I warned the SC Energy office that the COO was unlikely to succeed, and they told me they had come to the same conclusion. Global Energy Franchise, Blacksburg SC. Again I heard about someone fishing for grants and he had an ‘idea’, not a full business prospectus, not start-up capital, but an idea to open a factory/distributor/ warehouse. If you know solar, you know that manufacturing and distributorships don’t start with big factories they start in a lab or on a Web site. You have to grow these businesses and then expand. Boeing 2.6MW SC project goes to NC based contractor. Despite all these failures, or maybe because of them, I have never been more certain that solar research and development is the single, fundamental key to our energy future. All of our energy comes from the sun, I’ve said this 1000 times and I’ll say it again, all of our energy comes from the sun. Coal, oil and natural gas are fossilized plant matter created by the sun. Nuclear materials needed for fission are created by the sun. I have been extremely lucky to visit a coal plant, a hydro plant and a nuclear plant as a guest of Bob Long, of South Carolina Electric and Gas. Bob is a stellar individual and SCE&G is lucky to have him. His visits and my subsequent research have taught me a lot about energy. I have met many of the energy leaders in South Carolina. They are all very bright people. We are lucky to have them. I watched Catherine Heigel of Duke Energy deftly pit-bull solar activists at the Public Service Commission. She has been promoted to head up Duke’s SC division and rightfully so. Mike Couick of the SC Co-ops is a formidable man with his deep understanding of energy issues. Mike Smith of Central Electric Power Co-op has managed 70 installs of solar as part of a pilot program. Philip Greenway and Liz Kress of Santee Cooper have quietly advocated for smart policy on economically feasible renewable energy for years. Dukes Scott graciously listened to me in a meeting with the Office of Regulatory staff and Ashlie Lancaster of the South Carolina Energy Office has always listened to Solar concerns while balancing what is best for the State of South Carolina. Meeting and listening to these people has helped shape my understanding of energy production in SC. Everything I’ve learned has shown me that energy and government are intertwined and have been since the beginning of the modern age. The federal government taxed and regulated the SC fur trade in the 1740’s when Charleston was one of the biggest trading cities in America. Co-ops were born out of the federal Rural Electrification Agency in the 1930’s before rural America had access to electricity. All research in nuclear energy has been funded by the federal government but private companies have benefitted greatly from nuclear power plants. This is how America works, government protects the people, (sometimes from themselves) and private business prospers. There is no aspect of private business that does not benefit directly from government and taxes are levied to keep the system in balance. Investor owned utilities receive $52 dollars per rate-payer, per year in incentives and non-profit co-operatives receive $23 dollars per year, per rate-payer. Nuclear power is underwritten by the federal government and the state gives tax breaks in county and state taxes to enable power plant expansion. Do I endorse this system of government? Somewhat. Do I condemn it? Yes, somewhat, but it is the way we do things and for solar I know only one thing—eventually it will be an integral part of our energy mix. So when asked the question, “Why solar and why should the government be involved?” The answer is we have always used solar; the future will just be more so… and yes if the government is for the people, by the people and of the people then a definitely yes!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Getting away from what you know to appreciate what you don't

Man I love South Carolina, my wife and kids were born here and I have been welcomed here from day 1, 14yrs ago!

But sometimes you have to take a break and go see this great land we call America.