New under the sun: economical solar energy

An old friend crowed on Facebook the other day that he’d received his first check from the power company for selling excess solar energy back to the grid.

If the solar panel array on my friend’s northern Wisconsin home produces more energy than his family can use, the electric meter runs in reverse.

A northern Wisconsin home designed to incorporate a solar panel array on the roof. Photo courtesy of Mark Stensvold

Homeowner Mark Stensvold writes of the check he received,

$211.65. It was the payment for the six months over the winter. We’ve moved to monthly bills/checks now and June should be about $50 or so.

Obviously that amount will change month to month depending on our electric use; what the utility is paying for electricity from its big providers (fuel clause adjustment); and whether the sun is shining.

Right now we are producing about 4 times what we use. In the winter we usually need to tap the grid instead of feeding it because we have an electric boiler, so we will be paying Dahlberg [Light & Power Company]. Overall our system should produce about 10,000 KWH a year. Which is about the same amount we use (electric heat being our big drain).

Put another way, we should produce about $1,000 to $1,200 worth of electricity and use about the same amount. By the way, Dahlberg charges us for being connected to the grid, so the checks/bills reflect that too.

It’s evidence that the era of practical solar energy is finally within reach, and big utility companies that rely on carbon fuels are worried.

In an article in “Rolling Stone” magazine, former vice president Al Gore writes that “the ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted.”

No matter what the large carbon polluters and their ideological allies say or do, in markets there is a huge difference between “more expensive than” and “cheaper than.”

Not unlike the difference between 32 degrees and 33 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not just a difference of a degree, it’s the difference between a market that’s frozen up and one that’s liquid.

As a result, all over the world, the executives of companies selling electricity generated from the burning of carbon-based fuels (primarily from coal) are openly discussing their growing fears of a “utility death spiral.”

I’ve heard about the promise of cheap and abundant energy for most of my lifetime but it’s always been 20 or 30 years in the future. Gore thinks we may be at a turning point, similar to what happened with telephones when mobile technology began displacing landline service.

Researchers in England report that they’ve found a new manufacturing method that could reduce the cost of making solar cells, a method that replaces a toxic element with a material found in bath salts.

BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh explains:

Magnesium chloride is completely safe. It is used to make tofu and is found in bath salts. It also extracted from sea water and so is a small fraction of the price of cadmium chloride.

Prof Ken Durose, who is the director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy at Liverpool University, believes that his colleague’s discovery has the potential to transform the economics of solar energy.

Even those without roofs of their own could benefit by tapping into community solar panel farms.

As Diane Cardwell writes in The New York Times:

For developers, such shared or community solar arrays create a new market from the estimated 85 percent of residential customers who can neither own nor lease systems because their roofs are physically unsuitable for solar or because they do not control them — like renters and people living in large apartment buildings.

And for those customers, it offers a way into the solar boom, whether they seek to contribute to the spread of clean energy or to reap the potential cost savings.

Of course, there may be unintended consequences of cheaper, abundant energy. But, for now, my friend’s biggest solar challenge in the snow-belt south of Lake Superior this past winter was keeping heavy snow from shading the panels.