To borrow from “The Jeffersons” theme song, solar photovoltaics (PVs) are moving on up!
When I visited Home Depot recently, a SolarCity rep asked if my house was a candidate for solar panels. I knew the answer but wanted to hear his pitch anyway.
He brought up a Google Maps satellite view of my house on his laptop. The two giant maples dominating the south side of my house quickly put an end to the sales pitch. Although disappointed that solar isn’t an option for me, unless I want to chop down those trees, I’m excited that solar is coming to the masses.
The growth of solar power is a key step on the path to Point B. The International Energy Agency, not an organization known for hyperbole, said recently that solar could keep 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere yearly by 2050. That is “more than all current energy-related CO2 emissions from the United States or almost all of the direct emissions from the transport sector worldwide today.” Most of the energy from solar panels will be used where the panels are, such as your house, rather than a remote solar panel farm. So SolarCity being in Home Depot is a very good thing.
I remember as a kid when my dad bought solar panels for our house. It was not a popular decision with my mom. This was the 80s and solar wasn’t the sleek, thin panels we see today. Instead, it looked like two , one Minecraft UFO landed on our house and the other crashed into the side of it. I remember my dad saying the panels helped, but he never backed it up with any numbers.
My dad since passed away, so I asked my mom about our solar experience. Thirty years later and she is still skeptical. She suspects one set reduced the energy we bought for our water heater, but doubts the other set did much to offset our overall electrical bills. However, my dad handled all the bills and never showed my mom, so she doesn’t know for sure. She said he bought the panels because tax breaks made them so cheap. I suspect he heard Paul Harvey stumping for them. Anything Paul Harvey said was gospel to my dad.
When my dad bought those panels back in the Paleozoic era of solar, worldwide PV production was less than 10 megawatts. By 2013, it was 67 gigawatts (or 67,000 megawatts). That’s enough energy to power 36 million homes, more than a third of the homes in the U.S. People get enough energy from their rooftop panels now that they sell electricity back to the utility, playing havoc with the utility’s business model. David Roberts at Grist.org has an excellent series on how utilities are keeping us from getting to Point B.
I thought storage (i.e., batteries) and the distribution network (i.e., power lines) were the limiting factors in widespread adoption of renewable energies. But this showed me storage is not the issue I thought it was. Yes, renewable energy fluctuates. The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun isn’t always shining. But the grid already deals with variations in demand, and it can handle variations in generation. The distribution network is still a work in progress (I’ll write more about it in a later post). Rooftop solar bypasses that problem anyway by pumping electricity directly into your home. You will need storage, or lots of candles, to cover times the sun isn’t shining if you want to completely disconnect from the grid.
Solar has come a long way in those 30 years since my dad bought panels for our house. You don’t need a Paul Harvey to tell you that. If you don’t have two huge maple trees between your house and the sun, I encourage you to contact your local PV rep to see if solar is right for you.