The State of Solar Power: The PV Power System

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
The reinvention of the battery makes solar more practical than ever.

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.