The Ascent of the Sun: Stepping on the Gas (Part 2 of 3)

Solar electricity comes straight from the source – by which I mean that most electricity is some form of converted sunshine.  I bet when you plug something into your wall you don’t think about the fact that you’re plugging into the sun.  Unless, of course, you already have a PV system.

 

The electricity that comes out of your outlets is about 50% coal-based in the US, but coal is really just sunshine that was stored underground for a couple of hundred million years.  After the coal is unearthed it is burnt in a box somewhere far away to boil water, generate steam and spin a turbine.  Pretty inefficient, right?

 

Increasingly gas is being used instead of coal as a slightly more efficient form of stored sunshine. In some markets gas-fired power is coming to dominate due to the fact it burns a little bit cleaner – although nowhere close to the cleanliness of direct solar. Gas-fired plants are also easier to turn on and off than coal plants, so they are used for peak load, which is when the demand for electricity is at its max and generation must be increased to meet that need. Peak load typically occurs in the late afternoon/early evening when businesses are still open, but many people have already gone home and turned on their air conditioning while they cook dinner, do laundry, watch TV, etc.

 

Solar is a great replacement for this load, since it’s clean power AND the peak hours of solar power generation line up pretty well with peak demand.  For people with PV systems who are on a Time of Use rate schedule then it works out perfectly because they’re producing electricity and selling it back to the grid when it’s more expensive and buying it back at night when it’s cheaper.

 

Speaking of cost, let’s look at what happened at Southern California Edison (SCE) earlier this year.  SCE, a big conventional utility, asked regulators to approve 20-year contracts to buy 250 megawatts of electricity from 20 small-scale photovoltaic farm. According to Todd Woody of Forbes, the 20 projects — which will generate between 5 and 20 megawatts — will produce electricity at a cost below what utility industry wonks call the “market price referent.” The MPR, as they call it, represents the levelized cost of electricity over 20 years of a combined cycle gas turbine like those typically found in natural gas power plants in the Golden State.  Translated into plain English, solar power is fast becoming cheaper than gas-fired power.

 

So in the real world marketplace of California gas is getting too expensive, when it compares to solar direct.  Here’s a graph to show you the same points (tip of the hat to VoteSolar for all these facts & graphs):

My third installment of The Solar Ascent is going to focus on coal.  Here’s a question for you to answer in the comments: Only two states don’t have any coal-fired generating capacity.  Which ones are they?  No cheating! :-)  The first person to guess both states correctly wins a Sungevity t-shirt.

 

Next week: The Ascent of the Sun: Say Good-bye to Ol’ King Coal (Part 3 of 3)

12 thoughts on “The Ascent of the Sun: Stepping on the Gas (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Very good Danny. I am sure you have written about this before, but where do you stand on market based mechanisms to improve the environment? I am curious because many of us involved with Kyoto and voluntary carbon trading regimes are concerned that after Durban’s meeting this month, that “ship would have sailed” permanently given the state of the global economy. Give my best to Ike, Pat, Tinny and Boo.
    Josh

  2. Problems I have with solar power:

    1. Clouds
    2. Night
    3. Lack of viable storage technologies (e.g. batteries)
    4. Opportunity Costs
    5. Annual reductions in efficiency of ~1.5%.
    6. Reduction in efficiency if not cleaned regularly.
    7. Toxic manufacturing process.
    8. Rebates (state, local, Federal, utility) are merely variations on fiat currency – not a sustainable business model.
    9. Why have Germany & Spain, world leaders in solar usage, in the face of massive government deficits, opted to eliminate solar?

    I would love to have a discussion as to my concerns. Only a fool or tobacco executive would NOT want Solar power to be the answer to our energy issues, but it simply is not.

    Geothermal has much more potential as a true baseline power provider, however, it is not scalable to the 10-100kw level that solar claims to be (though, again, solar is not truly viable at any level).

    • Hi Greg! Thanks for your comment – it’s great that you’re thinking about solar power. We’d love it if you gave us a call because many of the ‘problems’ you have with solar aren’t problems at all! (For example, solar panels produce electricity even when it’s cloudy! Germany certainly isn’t the sunniest place on earth but it generates a huge amount of its electricity from solar power.) Geothermal makes sense in a lot of places too, there’s no doubt about that — but the sun beams more energy down on the earth in one day than all of humanity could use in a year, so we’re focused on using that. Give us a call (1866.SUN.4ALL), we’d love to hear from you!

  3. We have signed up to have a Sungevity system installed, which we hope will take place in the next couple of months. However, we have a disagreement with the company on an issue similar to the one which was mentioned by another commenter.

    Here in the east, power outages are increasingly common and serious. It would be great for Sungevity to allow a backup battery system to be connected to the inverter. It only makes good sense, would be a great selling point and, according to the engineer who did our home visit, not that hard to do. But so far the company doesn’t want to do it. We would pay for the backup (although you really could offer it) and all you have to do is approve it to be added to your system.

    I really hope you will reconsider your objections.

  4. I’d like to pick up on the comment above about storage batteries. We are going to have a Sungevity system installed this fall. We would like to have a battery backup attached to it, but so far the company won’t agree to it. Danny, can you help us? Here in the east power outages are many and getting more frequent. A battery backup attached to your panels would really help. The engineer who did our site visit says it’s quite possible.

    • Hi Art! We’re excited you’ll get installed this fall! First of all, THANK YOU for the feedback — we’re always looking at the latest and greatest new things, so it’s good to get some customer feedback. Battery back-ups are something we would definitely like to explore offering in the future; many people are in your boat. Currently they aren’t cost-effective for our customers, but that will surely change in the future — watch this space!

  5. So… picking up on the backup battery comments… I’m confused. So by these comments it sounds like if the power grid goes down the the solar panels don’t work? This makes no sense at all, why would you set it up to work that way? I bought a home on the east coast and have lived here for about 3 years and have already been through 4 power outages that have lasted 3 days or more. Been thinking about solar power and going through Sungevity…but if I can’t use solar power when the grid goes down…then I’ll steer way clear of Sungevity.

    • Hi there, JD! The way most people save money with solar panels is by connecting them to the grid. It’s called ‘net metering’, and it means that whatever power you generate yourself but don’t need gets put back into the grid to power your neighbors’ homes (and your meter spins backwards). Then later, say at night, you get power back out of the grid and your meter spins forwards again. Batteries cost a lot of money, but net metering is very cost-effective. They only downside is that when the grid goes down, they have to shut your solar panels off too so they don’t electrocute anyone working on the grid to fix it! Let me know if you have any other questions, or give us a call at 866.786.4255 any time. Thanks!

  6. Hi…I saw Danny’s TEDsydney speach as was impressed enough to venture to this site with something ponderous that’s been on my mind for many years, i was hoping to bounce the idea off of Danny himself. I live in South Australia which is apparently the driest state on the driest continent. Many state governments are turning to desalination plants as a way to provide fresh water to the masses, but the way this is implemented uses much carbon based energy.
    The idea I have is to use solar in the form of mirrors directing sunlight onto a hydro tower, where salt water is used to provide steam and drive turbines. The result is free energy as well as fresh water via condensation of the steam…leaving salt as the byproduct. Energy and Fresh water!
    Am I overlooking something?

    • Andrew that’s a pretty powerful idea. Like all great ideas, the devil is in the details and figuring out how to make it actually work! It’s a bit different to what we do at Sungevity with rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, but we love the creativity. If we’re going to live on this planet sustainably we need everyone to think like you!

  7. Hi there, JD! The way most people save money with solar panels is by connecting them to the grid. It’s called ‘net metering’, and it means that whatever power you generate yourself but don’t need gets put back into the grid to power your neighbors’ homes (and your meter spins backwards). Then later, say at night, you get power back out of the grid and your meter spins forwards again. Batteries cost a lot of money, but net metering is very cost-effective. They only downside is that when the grid goes down, they have to shut your solar panels off too so they don’t electrocute anyone working on the grid to fix it! Let me know if you have any other questions, or give us a call at 866.786.4255 any time. Thanks!

    Well, that only downside is pretty huge, lol. Since the primary reason for going solar, for me, is to not have to rely on the grid…and to have power when the grid does go down. Saving money comes second. I imagine you’re losing a lot of business to other companies that do provide backup because of this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s