The Real Potential for Solar Power in the USA

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The USA probably shouldn’t cover the west in PV panels.  But if you want to put a PV (solar power) system on your home or business … that’s a GREAT idea.  What’s the difference?  From our point of view, it comes down to centralized vs distributed power.  Traditional power works best (indeed requires) a centralized power system.  But alternative energy can work best when it is distributed.  

Laws of Supply and Demand … and Storage

One problem solar panels share with every conventional method of power generation is that they have a second by second correlation to demand – there is no centralized mechanism to store power.  The way the conventional power sources have managed this is simply to vary the amount of power they produce in order to just meet demand at any given moment.

The key difference between solar (or wind, for that matter) and its more conventional alternatives is that it provides only intermittent power – in other words, it only works when the sun shines.  

We modern humans like to run our electrical devices all the time.  Light, especially, is something we like to use at night.  There are also annual cycles of daylight time to take into account in calculating PV potential, as well as the average number of sunny days in any particular location.  So PV, unlike coal or nuclear or even hydro, really can’t be a practical means of generating all of our power without the capacity to store that power for use during times when the sun isn’t shining.  

A Note on the Solar News out of Germany

That difference between the power generated at any particular moment and the power that could be called on at any general moment is responsible for the confusion about the reporting on Germany’s PV power.  And that news is often very misleading.

When you see a news headline that says “Last Weekend Half of Germany’s Energy was Solar Powered,” or “Germany gets 50% of its electricity from solar for the first time,” what they MEAN is that for a few hours last week it was really sunny and the amount of power being collected by the German PV array was equal to half the use a that time.  They DON’T mean that half of all German power needs are being met by PV all the time.  

Actually in 2014, 5.7% of total German electricity came from active solar panels.  Since Germany is a not-UN-cloudy country at a pretty high northern latitude, its unlikely to ever be entirely powered by solar.  That doesn’t mean that that they aren’t making a great effort and setting a great example.  

What we can learn from Germany about a sustainable national power grid

VW may have given Germany a black eye when it comes to clean energy but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying attention to their success with alternative power sources.  

Simply to try to replace conventional power sources with alternative ones in the same centralized organization, distribution and use is first order thinking.  As we replace coal and nuclear with alternative energy, we need to think about new ways to distribute, use and store power, not just produce it.

Part of the secret to German success is that they are strongly supporting a distributed solar power network.  At least 60 percent of German renewable energy in 2012 was distributed generation.  That is, 35% of German renewables are owned by private individuals.  Add that to owned 11% by farmers and 14% by commercial and industrial holdings (powering their own buildings rather than providing general power.  What all those distributed panel owners can do that centralized power still can’t is … store power. 15,000 homes in Germany already have battery storage systems, per CleanTechnica, and that battery storage is only getting cheaper.  Battery capacity for large scale power storage isn’t quite a developed tech, yet, but it is coming. 

Thought Experiment: One of the best existing technologies to store power once it has been produced is inside the battery of an electric car. Imagine if we were to replace all gas powered cars used in modern commuting culture with electric ones which charged via PV during the work day. That could be an amazing savings in carbon emissions right there.

The Power of Intention

There is also a huge psychological power in knowing where your electricity comes from. (Hint: it is not “the outlet”). With no connection to our power conventional power sources, it is easy to treat power like magic and under- appreciate it.

When home and business owners have a stake in their own power generation, they are more likely to use power carefully. Even the sight of panels on a neighbors roof can inspire a little more thoughtful behavior.

Energy agency can help drive energy efficiency.

So what’s the takeaway?  We’d be operating more in the wheel house of solar power, if we focus on subsidizing and incentivizing distributed PV systems (on roof tops, not in deserts) which have the potential to be backed up by batteries and also produce power right at the source.  No transmission losses, efficient power usage and … no dead birds.