26-Mar-2008 (Wed) Wherein the daystar is of no use to us.

Every few years, I read another article about solar power, and how there's been some new technological breathrough in efficiency, or some new incentive program, and soon all the buildings will have solar panels on their roofs and everything will be sweetness and light. Well, a few times now, we've actually investigated installing solar at DNA, and each time it has gone exactly like it went this last time. It's pretty comical, so I'll share it with you now. We've had this same exact conversation three times over the last eight years:

    We contact someone who has a business installing solar panels. We tell them, "It would be nice if we could do this for emotional or environmental reasons, but environmental reasons don't pay the bills, so we're not doing it for that reason. We're only going to do this if it saves us money."

    They say, "Oh, it will totally save you money! Since you use power at night, you'll be feeding power into the grid during the day, and buying it back more cheaply off-peak! It makes so much sense for you. It's like you're the optimal case. Now, if you'll just write me a check for $20,000..."

    "Whoa, hold up there, Sparky. How does me writing you a check for $20k save me money?", I ask.

    "Well, it will pay for itself in only 20 to 25 years! Then you'll be totally in the black."

    "Wow, you must be an investment banker, with a pitch like that."

    "Oh, and also there are all these rebates and incentive programs. The Government will pay you to install the system! Also, you can do an operating lease with no money up front, or a Power Purchase Agreement, or this, or that, and it doesn't cost a thing!"

    "Zero? Zero sounds great! Get back to us with some options."

    "Ok, so the installation will cost $100,000 before incentives, and after the tax credit and five years of depreciation, the hardware only ends up costing you $13,000!"

    "Is yours a hearing problem, or an understanding problem?"

    "But it will pay for itself in only 25 years! Maybe 30."

    "You are such a tool. Goodbye."

Honestly, I can't tell if the problem with the people pushing solar is that they are earnest-but-incompetent hippies, or are just straight-up scam-artists. Either way, it seems like it'd be more efficient to actually set paper money on fire and use that heat to drive a turbine.

20 Responses:

  1. mc_kingfish says:


  2. pdx6 says:

    I have a relative that used to work in the solar panel install biz, and I remember quizzing him about this whole solar panel revolution. Basically you got the same'ol pitch that everyone else gets: "It'll pay for itself in 25 years! You get tax rebates!"

    I suppose that's fine if you are living in a house for 25 years, but in 25 years don't you think those panels will be worn out or have more efficient models available? Why not wait 25 years and invest then?

    Sun heated water tanks on the roof make more sense, but probably not for a night club!

    • jwz says:

      I fully expect that had I pursued this farther, I'd have found that while it would "totally pay for itself in 25 years", the panels themselves only last 5 years. That's the kind of fancy math that these people seem to think makes sense.

      • According to several of my professors, the current generation of solar panels pays for itself in closer to 40 years, and only lasts 20. Next-gen is supposed to be at least feasible, but then it's always *supposed* to be better...

      • boyofish says:

        I asked that question when we were looking at installing panels, and they claimed that the panels have a lifetime warranty, where 'lifetime' == 15 years. Seems a bit short to me.

        Even so, the greatest efficiency theoretically attainable for PV panels is 42% for a single photoelectric transition - the rest is lost as heat. Nobody seems interested in hot water tanks wrapped in solar cells, which seems to get the best of both worlds.

  3. jkonrath says:

    You seriously need to look into some method that can harness the power of vomit to generate electricity.

  4. cjensen says:

    If solar power could pay for itself, some energy company somewhere would be buying up the supply of solar panels and selling us the electricity from them. The only reason to buy them is for emotional reasons -- to reduce pollution. It's a good reason, but not everyone wants to pay through the nose for that.

    • cattycritic says:

      There are people who don't want to be dependent on a utility company for their power needs. There are others who live in an area that isn't serviceable by a power company. If you have plenty of money, photovoltaics is one solution, but almost nobody goes completely solar - instead people combine a number of power sources like propane, wind, solar water heating, active and passive solar and efficient home design. But, these situations don't typically apply in urban areas, certainly not to a bar.

      If we wanted to commit to widespread use of photovoltaics, the utilities should pay for everything and give people energy discounts to use their rooftops. If PG&E were to purchase solar panels they could get a bulk discount. It would drive more R&D into alternatives, AND, I think it's a big advantage to have local power generation anyway.

      Unfortunately, the chemicals used to create solar panels are highly toxic and apparently are causing problems around Chinese solar plants. Frankly, my opinion is, with the explosion in materials science development in the last decade or two, photovoltaics still aren't that efficient. People need to come up with better ways to generate and store energy from the sun.

      Tell you what though, if you've ever felt the water that comes out of an old-fashioned huge pile of black hose, it's pretty hot - that is, as long as the sun lasts :)

      • valentwine says:

        There are people who don't want to be dependent on a utility company for their power needs.

        These are the people in line in front of me at the store who hold up the queue ranting and raving about how they won't give out their telephone number for anything because the government is tracking them instead of just making one up like the rest of us, no?

  5. strspn says:

    Commercial cells haven't changed much in efficiency in 30 years. All of the improvements haven't been cost effective enough.

    PG&E used to have a "Clean Choice" program where you got the same electricity as everyone else but they would do accounting tricks to make it like you were buying their mix of wind and solar to drive up demand. That program may have vanished around the time of the Enron crisis, but my notes say to call Diane Sable at (415) 677-4855 to sign up.

  6. ciphergoth says:

    Solar panels on the roof are there to be shown off so everyone knows how green you are. Sensible solar energy is done in bulk in the desert, not using expensive panels on city buildings (whose manufacture has a pretty serious carbon footprint).

    • wisedonkey says:

      Not to mention all those other nasty chemicals that are needed to manufacture the panels... For whatever reason, folks glaze over when you talk about "reducing your carbon foot print...greenhouse gasses...global warming." Out of all the environmental concerns, CO2 emissions should be the lowest priority.

      • ciphergoth says:

        Out of all the environmental concerns, CO2 emissions should be the lowest priority.

        I don't think you can mean that - you would say for example that light pollution is a greater issue?

        • wisedonkey says:

          Excessive night light is bad for animals, humans included. However, I was thinking more along the lines of agricultural and lawn chemical run off. There are rivers so polluted that fish pulled from the water are not safe for consumption... human or animal. There are also plenty of cases of industrial storage lagoons overflowing, chemical tanks leaking, and all sorts of other nastyness causing various fish and other wildlife to die in large industrial-sized batches.

          Massive housing projects haven't helped. Tiny yards all coated in fertilizers and pesticides with automatic sprinkler systems to wash it down the drain will kill us all. When rains come, there's hardly any open ground so the rain doesn't soak into the ground. Rather, it rolls into storm drains where it picks up all the trash and dumps into over-stressed creeks, streams and rivers or perhaps into the neighborhood below, causing some wonderful localized flooding. The paved-over land also doesn't contribute as much moisture back into the atmosphere possibly causing more problems.

          Airborne pollutants were the first to be dealt with in the 1970s when numerous environmental laws were enacted as it was the most obvious problem. There's a rather interesting correlation between environmental laws, improved air quality and increased surface temperatures.

          As for reducing CO2 emissions, it's all about making the world a greener place. The only problem is that it's the monetary shade of green and not about more trees. Less CO2 means better efficiency and less waste or a reduction in overall consumption. It also makes for a new commodity that the paper-pushers can use to conjure up new money.

          /note: this post's incoherent rambling brought to you by the day job interfering with slacking

  7. karlknuckles says:

    Folks typically have these concerns WRT to solar and other local power generation: conservation, reliability, independence, and load management.

    Solar is rarely if ever competitive with grid eletric pricing. In my case, I spend $20-$50 per month on electric. I can't imagine an economic justification for spending $3-5 thousand or more on solar. Some studies indicate that from a "cradle to grave" perspective solar equipment is a net loss.

    Some folks live in off-grid areas or want solar for energy independence. A battery bank and inverters can provide an uninterruptible power supply. Supposing you use mostly grid power, if the grid goes down your inverters can supply AC electricity in a fraction of a second.

    Also batteries provide load management. Load management means harnessing a relatively steady energy input such as solar or a small generator and with this providing output in peaks and valleys. In principle you could start a large induction motor such as the one driving your refrigerator heat pump with a tiny generator or solar panel. Proper load management can allow the use of a small generator over one which is large enough for peak loads but inefficient on usual loads.

    The downside of batteries and DC->AC inverters is that they are another piece of equipment to purchase and maintain, plus batteries are inherently dangerous. Higher voltages are better for transmitting power. 96v DC batteries used to be commonplace especially in marine applications. It is almost not used anymore however because a mistake is likely fatal. DC is more dangerous than AC because it causes muscles to seize, such as a hand clenching a wire. It cooks flesh quickly. 48v is fairly common now, as are 24v and 12v. Batteries require proper ventilation against the risk of hydrogen explosions.

    Off-grid applications almost always require a backup for cloudy days, equipment failure, etc. Typically this is a small diesel generator. Diesels are typically longer lasting and more reliable engines, diesel fuel contains more btu's per volume than gasoline, and diesel is much safer than gasoline as it does not ignite easily.

    Compact fluorescents are an excellent cost savings, especially in air conditioned homes. In a heated home they provide maybe a minimal savings over incandescent bulbs because their inefficiency is heat, which may or may not be wasted. Certainly burning incandescents while running an AC is wasteful.

    Air conditioning is a tremendous misallocation of resources. Arabic architecture provides a model for living in heat. Tall thin windows, high ceilings, and white paint can create a surprising temperature differential with zero energy cost. Heat chimneys, especially combined with ponds or other water sources, can provide a huge boost as well. In dry climates wicking water through coconut matting and running air through it can provide as much cooling as you could want, and again a heat chimney can provide the passive energy source to move air.

    I'm not well informed about refrigerators and water heaters, but I guess the new generation of these is not so great as the sellers claim. Rather, the new efficient refrigerators and instant-on hot water heaters are indeed more efficient, but I guess they will have nearly completed their useful lifetime before paying for themselves. Wait until your current one wear out, then buy the most energy efficient one you can afford in a few years.

    Walking and bicycling are not necessarily such a win as they appear to be. Our food calories from conventional agriculture are extravagantly expensive in terms of carbon footprint and petroleum use. Anything you buy in a regular grocery was fed with petroleum-based fertilizer and trucked hundreds or thousands of miles. If you walk or bicycle for exercise, do it away form busy roads as they are singularly full of pollution which hardens arteries and does other harmful things.

    Perhaps the best argument for energy conservation investment is that it might may pay off handsomely in a world of inflation and rising energy costs.

    To save energy there is no close substitute to living simply in a small home. (Incidentally the author has not pretense of holiness in this regard.)

  8. drkscrtlv says:

    Have you read this?

    • jwz says:

      Sounds like "same crap, different day." A PPA is exactly what the last scammer was talking about.

  9. omni_ferret says:

    I'm not sure which incentives are applicable, but it looks like at least half (of, uh, $20k panels?) would be covered.

    Oh, & I ran into you last night but didn't properly introduce myself. So, hi!

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