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.


| October/November 1997



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


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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.





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