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The Problem With Renewable Energy Conversion

My Story:

After reading several scary and depressing books on Peak oil, such as The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg, and Powerdown by Richard Heinberg, I decided to see what I might do if dire predictions became reality.

My home and place of business is, pure and simple, an energy hog. I use 2500 kWh per month. I have pretty and warm halogen light bulbs on dimmers in almost every socket. I have two central air-conditioning and heating systems, eight computers, assorted entertainment and video equipment, and a 1 hp swimming-pool pump. All this is powered by grid-connected primarily fossil fuel electricity. In the socially responsible category, I have donated over 14 years of computing time to the grid.org project for cancer and human proteome research. However, the rest of my electricity usage is purely for personal and business purposes.

I wanted to see how, and if, I could convert myself to a more energy efficient and renewable source. So I called up Premier Power, a solar energy contractor, to see what it would take to replace or supplement grid power with solar energy. A friendly and knowledgeable salesman called me, asked about my power bills, and told me I would need 75 solar panels to replace the energy I was using. This would be direct grid connection, whereby I sold my power to the grid when it was being produced. In return, when my solar panels were not producing power, I would be drawing it from the grid. This would result in a net-zero power bill.

I asked the contractor how much the system would cost, including government tax credits and incentives. He spent a few seconds calculating and told me it would cost about $100,000, and with the business and consumer tax credits combined, I might be able to get it down to $65,000. With grid power costing me about $250 per month, the payback was in a range of 12 to 15 years! I was somewhat taken aback at the high price, but I thought to myself “If this really were an emergency, I could take out a mortgage and do this.”

But then I got the real shock! The salesman told me that we were in the midst of a worldwide solar panel shortage, and that the soonest installation could begin would be January 2006, and that was not even guaranteed. I asked why the shortage? He said all solar panels being manufactured in the world right now are being shipped to Germany, because they’re willing to pay prices even higher than what he quoted me. Apparently, the German government has made a strong commitment to solar power. (Good for them!) So strong, in fact, that economists are concerned the incentives they’re paying are too high. In some cases, a German installer of solar generating capacity can receive up to $.70 per kilowatt-hour, which is about eight times the average US electricity rate. Obviously, people are buying panels up in droves.

Unfortunately, I think this is a taste of things to come. As the realities of Peak oil begin to set in over the next decade, we will see an unprecedented demand for alternative energy technology. It will simply be the only option. The problem is, that in a world of radically higher-priced oil, all manufacturing will be radically more expensive, including manufacturing of replacement technology for fossil fuel energy.

It would have been prudent back in the 1970s, when the US experienced its first oil shock, to invest in such technologies. But the petroleum industry had its tentacles wrapped around our economy and our psyche way too deeply. The continuation of cheap fossil fuel use DID make economic sense, since the energy content of petroleum products is so high and convenient. But it lured us into a false sense of security for over 30 years, and as far as a cheap and easy conversion we might have been able to achieve–that tanker has sailed.


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