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Going Solar

November 4th, 2013

I am still seeing Americans going nuts over Fukushima as they largely ignore the extent and the damage caused by fracking. Others are now stating that it is time for us to go even more nuclear. To me, this is like arguing over whether you should submit yourself to a few dozen blasts from a shotgun using rock salt or a few body hits from a .45.

It is WAY past time to go solar.

And I don’t mean that just more people should go solar, though they should. I mean that instead of just loaning a bit here and there to solar companies, we should go all-out and start buying and installing solar on all levels.

Flatscreen LCD monitors should not have come as quickly as they did. At the time they were becoming popular, they were a poor alternative to CRTs. They were less bright, less sharp, were less able to present various resolutions sharply, had worse viewing angles, and were way more expensive. They had only one advantage: they were thin. That was enough for a lot of people to pay a lot extra for them.

So what happened? Because sales were good, producers started gearing up for them more. Corporations went all-out researching how to make the screens brighter, sharper, better, and cheaper. So now, LCD screens are superior to the old CRTs in so many ways, and they can be had for cheap too.

The lesson: you spend money purchasing a technology, it becomes a big market, and the technology improves, becoming more efficient, more effective, and much cheaper.

And that’s what we need right now: huge investment in solar. Maybe not Manhattan-Project huge, but something big.

One of my favorites: Solar Roadways. The idea that solar panels could be built into modular road, parking lot, and sidewalk panels. These panels would be covered with a specially engineered glass, tough enough to handle semi trucks rolling over them, and textured enough not to let cars slide under the worst conditions. Such panels would be much easier to install and maintain than asphalt or concrete; they would including heating elements to get rid of snow and ice; they would allow easy access to and protective cover for conduits for transmitting electrical power, data, water, sewage, and whatever else you want to run under them; and they would include LED lighting allowing for better night road markings and even interactive signage.

Initial costs would be high, but there are three mitigating factors. First, since laying asphalt and concrete also cost certain amounts, the real costs for the solar road are only what they would be above the costs of laying conventional roads. If laying asphalt costs $1000 for x amount of surface, and solar costs $1600 for the same amount of surface, then you’re really only paying $600 more for the added solar feature. Second, the energy the roads produce will pay back over time, eventually making the roads cost less, perhaps less than conventional materials; also, since maintenance is easier and additional benefits can be had, the solar version pays for itself even more quickly. And third—most importantly—the massive use of solar for such projects would spur research and production, creating solar technologies with higher efficiency and lower costs. The government should not be loaning money to solar companies. They should be buying solar technology, in large quantities. Investors will then have no trouble getting loans or capital elsewhere.

The estimate is that if one-third of all pavement in the U.S. were converted to such solar panels, we would not need any alternative forms of energy. That will be worth even more in terms of trade deficits, debts, and energy stability.

There are several problems, the greatest of which is that right now, solar is not immediately cheaper than other kinds of energy; instead, it is an investment. Pay a lot today in order to save even more over time. But over the long run, it is cheaper. The problem there is that most people don’t act on the long run. They see the sticker shock today and think, maybe later.

Another problem is that solar has been ridiculed. Are you some California elitist liberal who thinks solar is the bee’s knees and love it just as much as your Whole Foods organic products and your New Age aromatherapy treatments? Har! What a dumb hippie you are! Didn’t you hear about Solyndra?

To dip briefly into conspiracy-theory possibilities, one could easily imagine this being opposed by the powers that be because it is essentially home-grown energy. Beyond the panels, no corporation can control the sunlight collected or trade on its future cost. That severely limits the profit-taking. Screw the fact that it is incredibly more friendly to the environment, infinitely more safe than oil, coal, or nuclear, and that it will cost billions less in terms of clean-ups in the future. If it can’t be controlled to yield hundreds of billions in profits, then what good is it?

This bias is evident in other ways. Often laws made in the shadow of energy lobbying even discourage solar:

The experience of Orrin Kohon, a Los Angeles resident with a second home in Hawaii, reflects the hurdles facing consumers hoping to join the rooftop movement. If all goes well, Kohon will soon receive local government approval to let workers mount an $18,000 leased solar power system on the roof of his Honolulu house. Monthly electric bills for his modest 1,750-square-foot abode run about $400—at 32.6¢ per kilowatt hour, the highest in the nation. With his rooftop system, installed by a third-party contractor, he’ll generate enough of his own power to lower that rate to 7.3¢ per kilowatt hour for the next 20 years. That’s a savings, he says, of $120,000 over that period. “It’s a hedge, like locking in $2-a-gallon gasoline,” says the 63-year-old owner of a Los Angeles career counseling service. “The thing is, I have to act now. If too many of my neighbors beat me to the punch, I won’t be able to connect.”

That’s because thousands of Hawaii residents have also realized that even the most elaborate systems, costing up to $55,000, can pay for themselves in as little as four years given current power rates and state and federal incentives that chop up to two-thirds off the installation price. This rooftop stampede is overwhelming the permit process—70 percent of all current permit applications in the state are for solar installations—and causing utilities to impose moratoriums in some areas on how much solar they are willing to accept to their power grids.

The rule of thumb had been that once rooftop installations made up 15 percent of the power on a given circuit, utilities could stay new connections until residents undertook an engineering study—costing as much as $50,000—that showed their addition wouldn’t destabilize the power grid. While that rule has been eased to 25 percent in Hawaii, the extra burden on consumers explains why “there are places on Maui where the saturation is such that we don’t even solicit for business there,” says Alex Tiller, chief executive officer of Sunetric, a Hawaii-based rooftop solar power installer.

The hidden costs of obtaining permits and regulators’ approval to install rooftop panels is a big reason the U.S. lags behind Germany, which leads the world in rooftop installations, with more than 1 million. The price of installed rooftop solar in Germany has fallen to $2.24 per watt. In fact, on a sunny day in May, rooftop provided all of Germany’s power needs for two hours. “This is a country on latitude with Maine,” says Dennis Wilson, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, a solar-installer trade group. “Germany is showing us what’s possible—if we can just get our act together.”

Oil, gas, coal, and nuclear utilities have to be told in no uncertain terms to step aside. They have had their run; if it is too hard for them to operate with competition, then they are no use to us. Let them close down and the government will pick up operations until enough solar is installed to shrink them into networking and backup operations.

It is time for solar. We have to commit, and commit big.

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  1. Troy
    November 5th, 2013 at 04:45 | #1

    PV embedded in roads sounds like a simply horrible idea. PV needs clean optics for one.

    Rooftop makes a lot more sense:


    and also there are plenty of isolated sunbelt places with high insolation to install PV farms that use the power to create more durable forms of energy, like DME:


    Japan should possibly rent some of Australia’s uninhabited outback and install PV or concentrated thermal farms there, convert the energy into liquid fuels, and boat the product back to Japan.

    Or they could install floating PV arrays around their Minami Torishima holding:


    or since your population is declining, convert marginal rice fields to PV.

    or uneconomic hillsides, too I guess.

  2. Troy
    November 6th, 2013 at 04:27 | #2


    has a partial listing of cloud cover %s for the US.

    Here’s a cool map of incident solar energy:


    It looks like the area around Saku has less cloud cover than average for Japan:


    I have a friend in Santa Cruz (37 Deg N, more than a full degree N of you) who has 7KW+ of solar panels on his roof. He can dump peak-hour electricity @ ~$1.50/hr, $10+/day that more than offsets his overnight usage (at off-peak rates) to run his heat pump and charge station for his EV (which was a Leaf until recently).

    I’d love to have some isolated cabin in Izu or Chiba that was totally off-grid with PV and battery back-up storage. Drive my EV to Costco once a month to load up on provisions!

    From that map, Kochi or Wakayama are also possibilities, since they have a lot of natural beauty + insolation, but not sure I would want to be *that* far from civilization aka Tokyo.

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