Monthly Archives: August 2014

Grid Parity

SolarPriceLTO

A graph put together by Deutsche Bank—solar is likely to be cheaper than grid power in the relatively near future. Other forecasts vary a bit, but all tell this same basic story.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “grid parity”, then perhaps you need to be, because it might change your life. Here’s the simple version—electricity created by solar panels is, in most cases, more expensive today than what most Americans pay for grid power, even when calculated out over the life of a photovoltaic system. But, prices for conventionally-produced grid power are slowly rising, and prices for solar are steadily dropping. At some point in the relatively near future, solar power is going to be the same price as grid power—“grid parity”. And after that? Solar will be cheaper, and this likelihood has some large implications. I recently heard Alec Guettel, co-founder of Sungevity, Inc, say that “Solar has won, but the world just doesn’t know it yet”. I think he might be right.

Now, it’s a bit hard to truly pin down “grid parity”, because, like everything else, it’s complicated. Not every region of the country will get to grid parity at the same time; a number of factors affect when those two lines in the graph above will cross. Key among them—the price of grid-power in a particular location, how sunny it tends to be there, how much it costs to get solar installed (those that can do it themselves might save enough to be at grid parity now…), whether or not the system is financed (and at what interest rate), whether the electric company offers time-of-use pricing, and whether there are subsidies or tax credits available. Sunnier locales with relatively high utility rates will hit grid parity first (or have already). In the U.S., places like Hawaii, southern California, and Arizona are already at or very near grid parity even without tax credits. In the slightly-less-sunny Northeast, the federal 30% income-tax credit on solar installations, or third-party ownership models, like those offered by Sun Common and others, make solar pay here, too, in many cases.

Here’s an example of a form of grid-parity that pertains to my post the other week about commercial solar installations (post: “Rooftops Please”). Even here in slightly-less-sunny Vermont, a combination of federal tax credits, accelerated depreciation, the value of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and a form of time-of-use pricing offered by Green Mountain Power make large-scale solar arrays, like those in open fields like I was discussing the other week, pay off. (GMP offers a 6-cent premium on each Kwh of electricity from grid-tied solar installations, an “adder”, paid because solar is produced at or near peak demand on sunny days, when wholesale electricity on the spot market is expensive). In these situations, grid parity has been more than reached, which is why you see these installations springing up all over the place—somebody’s making some money.

And, virtually everywhere, if you are able to install solar yourself, on a roof that you already own, you are likely already at grid parity. In my case, building a house that was 1500 feet from the power lines, solar made sense even ten years ago due to the cost of the bringing in the power lines, which is why we’ve been off-grid all of this time. (Though that’s set to change; I’m about to dramatically expand our solar production to run the EV’s on solar power, which will entail grid-tying. More about this project in a future post.)

Now, about those implications—some thinkers worry that grid parity will result in a death-spiral for utility companies, as more and more customers abandon the utilities and put up their own systems, which would raise the cost of transmission for the remaining customers, and thus rates, resulting in still more customers pulling the plug. I don’t actually think this is likely—grid-tied systems are actually quite a bit more efficient than off-grid ones (see my post, “Not Sexy” ). In addition, large urban areas and manufacturing facilities will always rely on the surrounding countryside for renewable power, which will entail a grid. Rather, I think the most likely implications are actually good for the planet—it’s likely that solar power will truly boom in the coming years as it gets cheaper and cheaper, and we will actually begin to fully transition to an economy powered by clean, renewable power. That’s some truly good news. As for personal implications—keep your eyes open out there, because you might be able to install solar and come out way ahead, and it might be sooner than you think.

Graph credit: Deutsche Bank

Rooftops Please

solar arrays

Clean energy, but I’d rather see it sited somewhere else.

We all love solar, but I’m a little concerned with a trend I see here in Vermont lately—too much solar going up in beautiful farm fields, and not enough going up on people’s roofs. It’s no mystery why this is happening—it’s cheaper to install arrays on racks in open fields than to install them in any other configuration. Though the price of solar panels is steadily dropping, the profit margin for arrays like the one in the image above is still thin, despite favorable federal and state tax policies. The arrays wouldn’t pay off for investors if the costs of installation were much higher, and putting arrays on rooftops can be complicated and expensive.

I’m on the board of directors for the Acorn Energy Co-op in Middlebury, VT, and we’ve been struggling with this issue. Despite a strong preference among the board to support rooftop arrays, it’s been very difficult to get large rooftop projects past the planning stages. The problems are myriad. As opposed to a flat field, every rooftop is different, so projects must be individually designed. Labor costs of these projects are higher, as well, and all involve rooftop penetrations, a potential source of leaks.

Our group has tried multiple times to support projects on the largest roofs around—dairy barns. These huge, flat, slightly-angled roofs nearly scream for solar installation. But, we’ve found that most of these types of buildings haven’t been designed to support any additional roof weight beyond code-required snow and wind loads. As such, insurance companies won’t insure the projects. The difference in weight requirements is so small as to be almost laughable– in most cases a few extra pounds of dead load per square foot. These building are usually built with trusses, and the trusses are computer-designed for each building to be only as strong as required. With prior planning, most roofs could be made stronger, during construction, for a tiny percentage of the roof cost. (We’re currently working with structural engineers and roof truss suppliers to get actual cost figures). However, to retrofit existing roofs costs enough to derail most of these projects. The whole situation reminds me of that old nursery rhyme, “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost…”

Other factors also push the projects onto open agricultural land. First, there is often tremendous opposition to the cutting of trees, either from the landowner, or neighbors, which makes open areas more suited than wooded ones. Then, a whole host of laws prevents development on wetlands (for good reason), so potential sites must be dry. Then, if the soil is too rocky and doesn’t support digging, then that too incurs extra costs. So, when all is said and done, the arrays usually end up sited in farm fields. This isn’t catastrophic—we’re going to need a lot of solar, and the arrays don’t permanently damage the land. When their lifetime usefulness is past, the posts can be pulled and farming could recommence, or the land could revert to an undeveloped state. But if we’re not careful, there’s going to be a public backlash against solar. It’s by far the most promising technology we have to avert climate change and shift our paradigms around energy use, so we can ill-afford such pushback.

So, my personal opinion here—it would be better to utilize all those big empty roofs. Barn roofs, warehouse roofs, school roofs, the roofs of big-box stores, the space above parking lots, the roofs of every house… We need to change building codes to require the few extra pounds of load carrying capability that solar arrays would add, and we need to raise awareness about the future value of such rooftop space, so as to encourage roof designs that support future solar installations. Those things alone won’t solve the problem; I’m not sure how to completely change the economics that make arrays in agricultural fields more profitable. But, we might need to refine our mindsets with regard to solar installations. Rooftops first, please.

Top image copyright: vencavolrab78 / 123RF Stock Photo

Minimalism for the Mind

“Absence isn’t going to return to us easily. Just as we decide to limit our intake of the sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, we now must decide to sometimes keep at bay the connectivity we’re hardwired to adore. We must remain as critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it . . . Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. . .” —Michael Harris, from The End of Absence.

porch swing

Solitude and peacefulness: necessary ingredients.

Here’s a mental image for you, one that’s not nearly as pleasing as the image above—imagine a rat, wired with electrodes to the pleasure centers of its brain, pressing a bar that activates the circuit and triggers pleasure. The rat presses the bar over, and over, and over, ignoring food and sleep, until it finally falls over from exhaustion. (This really happens; the first experiments were conducted in 1956 by physiologist James Olds).

Compare that to people today, with their electronic gizmos, checking email, checking for text messages or Facebook responses, playing Angry Birds or Words With Friends or Candy Crush, or just incessantly surfing the web. Our technologies, because they compete in the marketplace for our attention, and because they can be replicated easily, take on an evolutionary aspect whereby they become more and more addictive. Just as advertising and broadcasting companies do (see my post from the other week, “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism” ), companies that create digital services design their products to gain and hold our attention, and the products and services that do so succeed in the marketplace, and are replicated. The very nature of the human brain plays right into their hands; we are wired to notice and pay attention to both novelty, flitting images, and social connection. For example, studies have shown that whenever young people receive a text message, that pleasure hormones like dopamine are released in their brain. (And perhaps not just young people—see this Psychology Today article, “Why We’re all Addicted to Texts, Twitter, and Google” ). And it’s not just the content of the message, but also the fact that someone sent it. The real message of that text— “I’m thinking of you, you matter to me…”. And, the speed at which kids respond to each other’s messages is important, too—the faster a response is sent or received, the more emphatic that underlying message of attention and caring. Ask any young person, they’ll tell you that real friends, important friends, respond immediately to text messages. (And if they’re in class? Well, then they’re returning texts from behind their book bag…). The whole thing becomes a circular, self-reinforcing web. Somebody loves me, I’m important to somebody, somebody loves me, I care about you too…

In his insightful book “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection”, Michael Harris explores some of the ramifications of these tendencies. We’ve all heard the term “meme” used to describe an idea that spreads culturally. Harris discusses the ideas of Susan Blackmore, who used the term “teme” to denote technological memes—digital products and services that spread due to their appeal (think of any funny cat video you’ve seen linked to lately on facebook, or the latest mobile phone game craze). Her conclusions are a bit frightening, but at the same time difficult to argue with. A quote from the book is in order here—

“But as temes evolve, they could demand more than a few servers from future generations of humans. Blackmore continued: ‘What really scares me is that the accelerating evolution of temes and their machinery requires vast amounts of energy and material resources. We will go on supplying these as long as we want to use the technology, and it will adapt to provide us what we want while massively expanding of its own accord. Destruction of the climate and of earth’s ecosystems is the inevitable outlook. It is this that worries me—not whether they are amoral or not.'”

One might accuse Blackmore of hyperbole here, but I can attest to the power of these trends. I work with young people on a daily basis, and I can tell you, the image below (itself spread virally around social media) rings truer to me than you might imagine:

zombie

I don’t know who took the original picture, but I doubt it was staged, because I see a very close approximation of this every day in the classroom. Kid are so attracted to the internet that is in their pocket that sometimes they seem to rarely even talk to each other. Are they like rats pressing a bar in some controlled pleasure experiment? If we were from Mars, I’m afraid we’d have to answer in the affirmative.

Now, I’m no hater of technology. This blog, by its very nature, is an offshoot of the digital age. As for social media, I would even go so far as to say that Facebook has enriched my life, by allowing me to stay in touch with students after they graduate and fly off to every corner of the world, and with friends and relatives in faraway places. But we need to keep a few things in mind as we use these digital tools. In no particular order–

— Realize that there are addictive aspects to the digital world, and that the products and services are designed, either overtly or as a result of market success, to be that way. The corporate entities behind these products and services realize this, and do their best to foster it. When they succeed in leading us around by the nose, it is time wasted from our lives, and money in their pockets.

play station

No doubt about the direction Sony wishes us to follow… Playstation banner at the E3 Expo, Los Angeles, 2012.

— Solitude has value. Our best thinking isn’t done while distracted. The human mind needs time to process, to meditate, and to reflect, and this can’t happen in a barrage of interuptions.

— Time with other humans, in the real world, without the distractions of phones and gizmos, has value. Deep conversations, and the deep friendships that follow, don’t take place via Twitter. Deep conversations also don’t happen when one party or the other is distracted by their smart phone.

— Multi-tasking has been shown time and time again to be an illusion. Doing all manner of digital activities, at the same time, just lowers the quality and efficiency of the work we do. We end up with quantity over quality.

Seek real experiences, and real relationships, in the real world. No digital equivalent is a real substitute.

— Too much social-media technology inhibits young people’s real-life social skills.

— Much digital stimulation is just another distraction, another opiate of the masses, and a form of mental clutter.

— Our problems, and humanity’s problems, are in the real world, and this includes wealth inequality, world poverty, and the ongoing destruction of the environment. Playing Angry Birds isn’t part of the solution to any of them.

So, in that post the other week I opined that turning off the TV would be a step forward for sustainability. Well, today I’ll just add to that—regularly disconnecting from the digital maelstrom has great value, for our personal psyches, for our real relationships, and for solving real problems. Let’s create real memories, in the real world, and let’s take care of that place. Much of Minimalism is about having fewer physical possessions cluttering up our lives and distracting us (my first Minimalism post), but digital distractions are just as bad; let’s also strive for some Minimalism for our minds, by purposely turning off the torrent of digital information from time to time, and living intentionally, of our own accord, and not as pawns in some corporate business plan.

 

Top image credit: archidea / 123RF Stock Photo.
Zombie image: Facebook.
Playstation banner: The Conmunity, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/popculturegeek/7640590798.