Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Electric Tales

This is not my story, it comes from an unimpeachable source: Fuzzy, a commercial electron, recently emitted from a spinning generator in a utility plant in Ohio.

Why is this a big issue?

For background, electricity is the second most important method to convey the power that turns our factories and heats our homes, second only to petroleum.  It will some day be Number 1, and for good reason.  There is no better, faster, cheaper way to transmit power from the myriad places where it is generated to all the familiar places where we use it.  Whether that power comes from water falling through a dam sluice, or steam boiling off a nuclear reactor, or windmills whirling their enormous arms in the air flowing through a mountain pass, it all gets converted to electrons, much like our friend Fuzzy, who then rush along power lines at nearly the speed of light to wherever we need them.  There is nothing in the world so cheap to deliver and so critical to our lives.

Fuzzy is a victim of idiot energy policies, and he is laying it all out, the ultimate electric insider blowing the whistle.

Solar Power On the Grid
Lets start with the current policies for renewable energy, particularly, residential photovoltaics, or solar panels as they are called. These are the large black or blue panels we often see on roofs that generate electricity from sunlight. The sun is our very best, and nearly only source of power. It was historically responsible for all that stored energy in oil, coal and uranium, but it still shines with enough energy to power a one horsepower engine from the light on a single square meter of this planet, and with a little left over. Solar panels are good things. The sun is not regulated by any state utility commission. It’s an equal opportunity power source, shining on people of every political persuasion.
Having decided, for good or ill, that a certain percentage of electric power be generated from renewable sources, (as much as 20% in California), both State, Federal and some local governments decided to pass laws giving home owners incentives to install solar panels. At least that what we thought they were doing. What actually happened is that the regulated utilities wrote these laws, with the help of ignorant and compliant politicians. Those interests don’t like the idea that the sun shines on each of us equally, or that we could live well without them if we could generate our own solar power and not rely on the grid.
Fuzzy tells me that with solar panels homeowners could live mostly “off the grid”, with just a fraction of our electric needs supplied by base power stations like the one in Ohio. But try to get a solar installer to set you up like that! First, practically every solar installation is “grid-connected”. That means that all the power your solar cells generate is put back into the grid. If the grid goes down in a power outage, the system is designed to shut off automatically, so you don’t accidentally electrocute the power linemen who would otherwise be making repairs to live wires. That’s the reason they will give you. The bottom line is that your solar panels, the ones that you paid for, are no good for backup power. You are still totally dependent on the grid. The day you decide not to pay your electric bill, you are still shut off.
The average residential solar panel installation is 4000 watts, consisting of 15 to 20 individual panels that generate DC, usually around 24 volts. This is the perfect voltage for storing into batteries. However, your contractor will not propose this option and will try to talk you out of it. He will say that batteries are expensive, that they are unreliable, and that they are not compatible with the equipment he sells. These are outright lies. The typical cost of a 4 kilowatt solar installation is about $40,000. Rebates and tax credits, which vary from state to state and locale to locale average 30% to 35%. So, you will foot or finance a $26,000 bill (at 9% interest). You will save about $600 per year in electric charges. Your payback period will be ten to twelve years. This is not a very good investment. What you have done is finance, out of your pocket, an arbitrary requirement that the utilities must generate 20% of their power from renewable resources. They don’t want to pay the capital costs, so they created a system where they think you will pay them.
If you bought batteries to store the power so you could use it at night and gain some independence from the grid, you would spend an additional $3000 for those batteries. We’ll get into that option.
I lived off the grid for years. My system never went dark. Fuzzy is telling the truth here.
Let’s look at the technical side.
Grid-connected solar panels are wired together in series to make a higher voltage, usually 240 volts, and converted to AC by a grid-connected inverter. That inverter has the additional task of keeping the AC it produces in phase with the grid power. If it tried to put out 17 amps at 240 volts into the lines on a plus pulse while the grid was at a minus pulse, there would be a really big and destructive spark, sort of a short circuit, with 480 volts driving it. The additional cost of this feature doubles the price of the inverter.
The inverter, or a separate box, also has to sense the line voltage and shut off the juice from your solar panels if the grid goes down. That little feature adds another healthy increment to the cost. Finally, your electric meter has to be swapped out at your expense to accommodate the extra power source. In some states a single dual input meter works for both, so that the power generated by your solar panels slows the meter down, and you register less electric power off the grid. It also registers when you add power to the grid by producing more than you use. Other states require two separate meters. Still others require a meter that can be read on a signal from the utility company, a feature that they would otherwise have to pay for themselves. Some utilities require a “utility interactive” inverter, so they can turn you inverter on or off at their command, not yours.
When you buy power you pay, perhaps, 25 cents per KWH. When you produce excess and sell it back, they pay you maybe 7 cents per KWH. Some deal.
Once you have all this equipment installed and paid for, it has to be “certified” by the utility company. You can’t apply for this certification – the installer has to do it. They do it at your expense, of course. Most incentives, such as tax credits, electric rebates and saleable renewable energy credits, begin only after your installation is certified. With all this “certifiable” stuff, you already spent far more than the cost of the batteries, and you still don’t have any way to run the refrigerator or the heater when a blizzard knocks out power.

Solar Power Off the Grid

I’m sure the installer will tell you that only grid-connected systems can be certified. That’s almost a lie. It should be obvious by now that the whole deal was a setup to make sure you stayed dependent on the utility company. They don’t want you to even suspect that you could go “off the grid”. This is the identical situation we all experience with the telephone company, when that was a “regulated” monopoly. Remember? They wanted you to rent a phone at ten times it’s value, and when you finally could buy your own phone, they had to “certify” it for connection to the phone lines. Monopolists are monopolists. That cat don’t change its stripes.
Please keep in mind that the raison d’etre for renewable power is to save us from having to burn fossil fuel and importing oil from the Mideast. Saving the utilities from themselves was never an objective, except maybe to the utilities. From the point of view of a reasonable conservative, the effect of individuals using less grid power is certainly equal to supplying that same power to the grid. And you ought to get some benefits from your money that don’t depend on government largesse.
Here’s what the installation should be:
The same solar panels on the same roof can be connected in parallel to produce 24 volts at 167 amps. Those heavy cables go to a “charge controller” that monitors the charge state of the batteries, and from that directly to a battery bank, say 840 amp hours. Ni-cad is best and would last 25 years, but a good grade of industrial battery like Rolls or Surrette lead acid batteries are good for ten years and they cost less. Lead-acid batteries need to be vented to the outside but kept at room temperature. Ni-cads don’t need venting. LI-Ion batteries from electric cars are available but pricey.
The wiring in your house is already divided up into circuits. The circuits for the heating system and the refrigerator should be isolated from the grid, along with the microwave and perhaps one TV. I would install a few 24 volt LED lights for emergencies and buy some flashlights before I put my house lighting circuits on solar power. These critical circuits should be connected directly to pure sine wave inverters that produce 3000 watts on continuous power and 6000 watts peak. You should make up an off-grid power budget and a daily usage profile. You may require two of these simple inverters, made by Xantec or Fronius or a few dozen others. You use the original utility-supplied meter for whatever power you still use from the grid, such as your washer/dryer, vacuum cleaner, and the 40 inch 3D plasma TV.
You are now off the grid for critical items. They will never use another kilowatt from the grid. Your electric bill is reduced to the same extent it would be if you had a grid-connected system, for less money spent on the gear. And….you have backup power if the lines go down, if you forget to pay your bill, if they jack up prices so high you just refuse to buy any more juice.
Frills include an inverter that can go off-grid or on-grid at YOUR command, and a cutover switch that puts you back on the grid in case your own system goes down or needs repair.
But what about the “gotcha” of certification? Due to the requirement that rural areas must be certifiable, there is usually a loophole in the certification standards that will get you the same tax credits and the same rebates. Of course, you will not have those nice saleable energy credits, but you are a conservative, aren’t you? Do you really want to rely on ongoing government credits?

Legislator’s Guide
Please lobby your legislator for renewable incentives that are written for consumers, not utilities.
Thanks, Fuzzy Electron, and here is a handy reference:

That site has state laws, federal laws, utility rebates and equipment lists for every US state, and more.

1.  CHOICE: Solar power purchasers should have the choice of off-grid or grid-connected installation with the same tax-incentives, grants, and credits either way. Tax money belongs to the tax payers, not the utilities. Give the people who pay the money the choice.
2.  CERTIFICATION: Certify the equipment and not the installation. The contract between the installer and the resident is a private contract, not subject to government approval. The utility can provide a protected interface specification for the equipment manufacturer to use, just like the telephone company does now for modems and telephones. Any lineman who trusts his life to a dumb device of any kind, certified or not, is a walking dead man. They all know better. They use insulated tools to make that final connection on either end of a repair. As long as the installer is a competent and licensed electrician, certifying the installation adds nothing to the safety issue. A simple form sent to the utility and the various government rebate agencies should suffice to provide all the info on the cost and capacity of the installation that they need.
3.  TAX EXEMPTIONS: Any kind of solar power installation should be exempt from real estate taxes. This public policy will keep greedy towns and counties from seeding their tax base. However, if the local governing body pays for more than, say, 80% of the installation, they should be able to sell the output power as if it were a municipal power utility. This kind of arrangement ought to be encouraged.
4. TAX CREDITS: Tax credits should be available based on the either the cost of the installation or the power output, and should be carried forward until used. They should apply equally to grid connected or off-grid installations.
5.  RENEWABLE ENERGY CREDITS: These are bad policy for the same reason that Carbon Credits are bad policy. They are a fiat currency without controls, subject to unlimited corruption and inviting more government intervention.
6.  RENEWABLE ENERGY GOALS: In real life there is no place to levy these requirements. As in the Dreamland State of California, they will never be met, they tilt the playing field away from economic supply and demand, and they skew important energy decisions in the wrong directions. Then they terminate, unmet, and all those excess capital assets are wasted.
7.  RESEARCH: Put your tax money into basic research in robust grid design, biofuel from algae, mass energy storage, and cellulosic ethanol, among other things, and get off the government mandate business. Basic research does not have to be “revenue neutral”, it is historically the most positive revenue raiser in the economic arsenal. Look at the GPS system, lithium-ion batteries, jet aircraft and synthetic rubber tires. The most robust part of our economy is from things that did not exist 100 years ago, and many did not exist even ten years ago.

Next time we’ll discuss the planned “smart grid” and the Idiot’s Grid that we might wind up with.


  1. Great article. I just wish we could do this in condominiums. In Florida you cannot make a person remove their clothesline, even if in a very hoity toity area.

    Federal law protects your right to have satellite tv connection instead of cable or fios. Why can't we do the same with solar panels?

    We need to have the same type of law protecting those of us that want to put solar panels on our roofs even if we live in a townhouse or townhouse style condo.

    I lhad to chuckle when I saw a guy with a big motorhome drag out his solar panel at the campground. He wasn't going to pay for a site with electricity! We should all have this option!

  2. How about an electric yacht that runs on solar panels? There is at least one manufacturer doing that. As long as the sun shines, you're cruising along a 9 knots.