The State of Solar Power: The PV Power System

The state of solar power for 1998. Learn more about the economic success of PV power system and their future in new building developments.


The reinvention of the battery makes solar more practical than ever.


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This update on solar power talks about the PV power system and it's future in the U.S. 

When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, the era of American invincibility was over barely twelve years after Hiroshima marked its beginning. I'm part of the generation spurred by Sputnik and the space race it engendered. One of the first technological hurdles to be overcome was also one of the most basic. How to produce electricity on-board? Batteries light enough to launch would never power on-board electronics for a fraction of the time necessary, so a way to constantly generate power had to be developed. In the pursuit of that power, a minor miracle was accomplished. Juiced by a virtual blank check from the U.S. government, scientists were able to invent the photovoltaic (PV) panel, which not only made it possible for us to visit the moon, but also slightly less remote regions of the earth.

Readers of MOTHER are no strangers to the dizzying ride solar energy has taken, from our best hope of unlimited power in the early seventies, to complete disrepute in the Reagan/Bush era, to a small but promising resurgence today. Technological progress has been frustratingly slow, thanks to a complete lack of governmental interest and the recent relative stability of fossil fuel prices. Finally, in the last half of the '90s with the development of slightly improved PV panels integrated with newly available computer-based controllers and inverters, we are again at a threshold for the PV power system to become widely used.

Many new developments are coming not from the industrialized nations but from the third world. In the absence of large integrated electrical transmission systems (grids), third world countries are beginning to see the wisdom of independent power production for each home. One can now begin to predict the economic success of PV's future in the United States as well, as the cost of output falls slowly while conventional power costs slowly rise. It's a good bet that there will be a period of price fluctuation when more electrical utilities are deregulated (California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents will be permitted to buy power from whoever they like as of January 1,1998, and more state deregulation is close on their heels.), but it is inevitable that fossil fuel-produced power costs will increase. Demand will rise across the first decade of the new century, driven by world population increases and the rapid spread of an electrical lifestyle to the countryside of China, Russia, Africa, and South America.

Many installations will incorporate, in addition to a PV power system, some combination of micro-hydroelectric, wind power and a backup fossil fueled generator. These sources will be integrated to battery storage and the home by the new generation of computer controlled multi-function inverters. These systems will yield power availability and quality nearly as reliably as today's grid at these remote sites.

The remaining weak links in this promised lifestyle are batteries, devices which haven't changed much in the better part of a century. Lead-acid batteries still need to be carefully watched (and in some instances watered), and money should be set aside for their replacement (approximately every ten years). Their toxic nature demands a separate "battery house" as well as mandatory recycling. An auto industry-government consortium is hard at work improving batteries for the electric car revolution, and the most promising developments of that program are fuel cells, which store power upon charging by splitting water (H2O) into it's respective atoms. The atoms are stored as oxygen and hydrogen, and electrical power is released by recombining these same atoms across a membrane. Instead of having to deal with an ecological nightmare that is a used lead-acid battery the only waste byproduct of these new fuel cells is water.

Fuel cells power the space shuttle with a design several generations older than current models. More recently, some city buses and experimental cars have used fuel cells to store their energy. Some companies have small experimental 1 & 2 KW sized modules, which hopefully will also become practical and affordable as the technology advances and market demand increases. This will lead to the second wave of independent living as the middle class, both here and abroad, will be able to embrace PV with it's new found alliances with computer-based controls and trouble-free fuel cells. The convenience factor will now be appropriate, and independent electrical production will just be another appliance that Americans will enjoy.

Can You Live a Solar Life?

A single occupancy small apartment in which cooking and hot water are supplied by gas uses an average of 192 KWH per month, or 6.4 KWH per day. A single occupancy country residence would use slightly more power, say 8-10 KWH per day.

A country home with two parents and two teenage children using heat and hot water from natural gas will use 958 KWH per month, or 31.7 KWH per day.

Although system costs are still slowly dropping, a PV power system capable of supplying the latter country home could easily tip the scales at over $50,000. Now if the choice is between this and extending the power grid a few miles to your new country home, paying the utility $10 -$15 a foot to do it, such an investment would pay for itself the minute you turned it on. For the rest of us who live life "on the grid," paying the better part of a year's salary as a hedge against future rises in utility power costs would be impossible.

The concept at loggerheads here is, as you can see, what we can get from PV versus the power that we have come to accept as necessary. A PV powered home not funded by a millionaire would, by necessity, feature no air conditioning, no electrical heating appliances of any kind, and very few large electrical motors such as washers and dryers. Such a home would need to be heated and cooled by design rather than by utility. Passive solar heating would need to augment a wood stove in winter, and well-designed ventilation would have to do the job of summer cooling.

Solar energy's biggest problem and at the same time most encouraging feature is that it demands that we re-think every light switch and appliance, every needless waste of energy in our homes. For a country which has 5 percent of the world's population but uses 20 percent of the world's fuel supply, such an investment of time would not only save money in the short-term, but resources far more precious.