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Solar Electricity: “The Final Source of Energy”

Passive Solar Net Zero House Photovoltaic Modules Richard Levine Kentucky

Back in 1982, I was an undergraduate studying physics and listening to the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I loved my OMD album and was captivated by the song Electricity. Towards the end of the song, they sing:

Back in 1982, I was an undergraduate studying physics and listening to the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I loved my OMD album and was captivated by the song Electricity. Towards the end of the song, they sing:

The alternative is only one
The final source of energy
Solar electricity

You can hear the whole song in the video below.

That was a bold prediction in 1982. Some may say it’s still a bold prediction. You can’t deny, though, that we’re getting closer to making it a reality. The prices of photovoltaic systems have dropped like crazy over the past few years, and they’ll go even lower, I’m sure.

Is solar thermal dead?

In fact, they’re so low now that Martin Holladay has declared that Solar Thermal Is Really, Really Dead. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I’ve been asked to present on Martin’s thesis before the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association on Wednesday. I hear there’s a lot of buzz developing in the community because there’s a lot of solar thermal business here. It oughta be interesting.

Electric cars

I believe solar electricity is the future, though. Finally, electric cars are making a go of it, and Elon Musk (a fellow physics grad, although one much smarter than I am) has made electric cars cool.

The Tesla, in case you didn’t know already, really rocks. I got a chance to ride in one last year at the Dry Climate Forum and then got to drive one last summer. Now I’ve just got to figure out how to make enough money to buy one. Chris Calwell, the owner of the Tesla I rode in a year ago, said that his could go 200 miles on the equivalent of 1.8 gallons of gasoline. Wow!

Getting to net zero energy

Of course, net zero energy homes need some kind of onsite power production, and photovoltaics (PV) are the source of choice. You stick those PV modules up on the roof, tie into the grid, and benefit yourself and the rest of us by doing so.

The technology is there and continues to evolve, and PV on the roof is the best way to make those electric cars sustainable, too. We’re going through a revolution right now, and electric utilities are in the midst of a some serious change.

Last year at the Building Energy conference in Boston, I learned that New Englanders love heat pumps. One of the reasons is that that’s another technology that’s improved greatly, and they can work well even in cold climates in homes with good building enclosures. Another was given by Richard Faesy at the BE conference: “We need to electrify all fossil fuel end uses,” he said, because that gives us the best chance of reducing the effects of climate change.

And a chance to learn solar electricity

Back in the ’90s, I really wanted to take a class in installing solar electric systems, but it never worked out. Then I discovered building science, which is now my main passion (besides skiing), and the dream of getting into the PV industry faded away. It’s still important for people to learn this stuff, and I believe it’s going to grow a lot in the coming decades.

So here’s your chance. Ian Woofenden, an editor at Home Power Magazine, is leading a class called Solar Electricity for the Developing World at the end of March. What a great opportunity. You get to learn how to install PV systems and a trip to Costa Rica, too!

ian woofenden solar electricity developing world photovoltaic

So, go! Learn how to install photovoltaic systems, but remember that building science doesn’t become less important with the falling cost of photovoltaics. It’s as important as ever, and we need people who understand both worlds.

And be sure to come back and tell us how the class was if you take it.

 

Related Articles

A Great Success: Classic 1970s Passive Solar Home Turned Net Zero

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The Secrets of Liars — How to Detect an Internet Solar Energy Scam

 

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This Post Has 36 Comments

  1. Yes, here’s to electricity!
    Yes, here’s to electricity! My first architectural project in school (way back then…) was to do design an electric car charging station. &nbsp; <br />Assuming your skiing is on groomed slopes where you are powered up a hill to then come down by gravity, I think you would feel less guilty skiing if you could help develop PV powered ski slopes. I’d love to help with any nearby cabin designs! (maybe these slopes already exist and you could instead report on them….)

  2. And why doesn’t HERS take a
    And why doesn’t HERS take a PV installation into consideration for its rating?

  3. <b>Debbie C.</b>:
    <b>Debbie C.</b>: Yes, I ski the groomers and am definitely not an uphill hiker. I don’t know what motivates those people because they certainly don’t get many runs in. And yes, let’s make those solar powered lifts a reality! We might need Stirling engines rather than PV, though.&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br /><b>JA Webber</b>: But it does! See my <a href="http://energyvanguard.com/blog-building-science-HERS-BPI/bid/53998/Everything-You-Ever-Wanted-to-Know-about-the-HERS-Index">article on how the HERS Index is calculated</a> to find out how.&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br />

  4. I think you are on the mark,
    I think you are on the mark, Alison. I am approaching retirement and wanted to minimize expenses for the long run. With Calif’s very high energy cost (thanks both LADWP and IBEW) solar was an easy choice. Then I though, hey, I can get an electric vehicle, use it as a battery backup for the house as well as transport. Retired, the car will be home charging from my panels most days and any excess will feed the grid and pay me. I see no downside here. PS, my HVAC mini-split works great here in CA too. (Simply Solar in Hawthorne has been a great supplier)

  5. I’ve been to Rancho Mastatal;
    I’ve been to Rancho Mastatal; we built the composting toilets there in 2011 (I think it was 2011???). Anyway, it’s an amazing place. Just a constant learning environment the whole entire time, from the moment you wake up to the moment you close your eyes.

  6. Honor the Earth by using
    Honor the Earth by using constant temperature of the earth for cooling, heating and hot water use a geothermal heat pump system as the greatest green innovation. Put one unit of electrical power and get 3-5 units of free energy from the earth by circulating water under ground to a heat pump system. Save 30-70% energy. Before installing solar panels install a geothermal heat pump and only need <b>half as many solar panels</b>. Millions of units have been installed in the USA and around the world. A geothermal heat pump home has no outside fan/compressor making noise, takes care of humidity problems, quiet sounds like a refrigerator, and works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. You do not have to wait till the sun shines or the wind blows and you get a 30% tax credit plus local electrical utilities rebates. Honor the earth by using natural green resources under your feet for heating, cooling and hot water. First install your own utility by installing a geothermal heat pump system before installing solar panels.

  7. Allison – as you well know,
    Allison – as you well know, the key is "reduce the load". If you design any energy-using process to use the minimum amount of energy then you can use alternative energy generating sources. Design houses to Passivehaus standard and you don’t need much energy to supplement. Design super-light transportation devices and you don’t need much energy to move it about.&nbsp; <br />The difficulty is when a society gets used to living a certain "way" and then that "way" gets changed (or becomes too expensive to afford). But society has a funny way of adapting (over time) to the new "way" of doing things. It is just traumatic for most people during that transition.

  8. We at the Santa Fe Area Home
    We at the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association are honored to have Dr. Bailes presenting at our lunch meeting tomorrow. We are guaranteeing a full house of well over 50 people. And as Allison said, we are a market with a long history of solar thermal advocates who will be out in force to challenge then notion of dead solar thermal. Allison may need to employ all of his amazing juggling skills!

  9. The problem with solar energy
    The problem with solar energy is the time it takes to break even on the investment and maintenance of the system. It’s like deferring your Social Security until you are 67 instead of taking it at 62. Sure, you will get 25% more per year five years later (if you live). But if you defer it until you are 67 you will be 82 before you recoup the 5 years of lost SS checks, and see the first penny of overall gain. Most people don’t want to wait years to get a return on a solar installation for their home. They may not plan to stay in that home, they may want to use the money for more immediate tangible desires, they may not want the headaches of maintenance of those systems, and may be worried about being able to sell a solar house in the future. If a solar home can guarantee a one year break even point and then significant savings in the future, it will take off. But that hasn’t happened. Like owning a personal computer in the 1970’s, the main benefit of solar today is the sense of satisfaction of having done it. For most people they just want what comes with no work or investment, from the utility company.&nbsp; <br />

  10. Yes, here’s to electricity!
    Yes, here’s to electricity! My first architectural project in school (way back then…) was to do design an electric car charging station.  
    Assuming your skiing is on groomed slopes where you are powered up a hill to then come down by gravity, I think you would feel less guilty skiing if you could help develop PV powered ski slopes. I’d love to help with any nearby cabin designs! (maybe these slopes already exist and you could instead report on them….)

  11. And why doesn’t HERS take a
    And why doesn’t HERS take a PV installation into consideration for its rating?

  12. Debbie C.:
    Debbie C.: Yes, I ski the groomers and am definitely not an uphill hiker. I don’t know what motivates those people because they certainly don’t get many runs in. And yes, let’s make those solar powered lifts a reality! We might need Stirling engines rather than PV, though. 
     
    JA Webber: But it does! See my article on how the HERS Index is calculated to find out how. 
     

  13. I think you are on the mark,
    I think you are on the mark, Alison. I am approaching retirement and wanted to minimize expenses for the long run. With Calif’s very high energy cost (thanks both LADWP and IBEW) solar was an easy choice. Then I though, hey, I can get an electric vehicle, use it as a battery backup for the house as well as transport. Retired, the car will be home charging from my panels most days and any excess will feed the grid and pay me. I see no downside here. PS, my HVAC mini-split works great here in CA too. (Simply Solar in Hawthorne has been a great supplier)

  14. I’ve been to Rancho Mastatal;
    I’ve been to Rancho Mastatal; we built the composting toilets there in 2011 (I think it was 2011???). Anyway, it’s an amazing place. Just a constant learning environment the whole entire time, from the moment you wake up to the moment you close your eyes.

  15. I will like to go Green..The
    I will like to go Green..The cost of electricity in my country is berry high…

  16. Honor the Earth by using
    Honor the Earth by using constant temperature of the earth for cooling, heating and hot water use a geothermal heat pump system as the greatest green innovation. Put one unit of electrical power and get 3-5 units of free energy from the earth by circulating water under ground to a heat pump system. Save 30-70% energy. Before installing solar panels install a geothermal heat pump and only need half as many solar panels. Millions of units have been installed in the USA and around the world. A geothermal heat pump home has no outside fan/compressor making noise, takes care of humidity problems, quiet sounds like a refrigerator, and works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. You do not have to wait till the sun shines or the wind blows and you get a 30% tax credit plus local electrical utilities rebates. Honor the earth by using natural green resources under your feet for heating, cooling and hot water. First install your own utility by installing a geothermal heat pump system before installing solar panels.

  17. Allison – as you well know,
    Allison – as you well know, the key is “reduce the load”. If you design any energy-using process to use the minimum amount of energy then you can use alternative energy generating sources. Design houses to Passivehaus standard and you don’t need much energy to supplement. Design super-light transportation devices and you don’t need much energy to move it about. 
    The difficulty is when a society gets used to living a certain “way” and then that “way” gets changed (or becomes too expensive to afford). But society has a funny way of adapting (over time) to the new “way” of doing things. It is just traumatic for most people during that transition.

  18. We at the Santa Fe Area Home
    We at the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association are honored to have Dr. Bailes presenting at our lunch meeting tomorrow. We are guaranteeing a full house of well over 50 people. And as Allison said, we are a market with a long history of solar thermal advocates who will be out in force to challenge then notion of dead solar thermal. Allison may need to employ all of his amazing juggling skills!

  19. The problem with solar energy
    The problem with solar energy is the time it takes to break even on the investment and maintenance of the system. It’s like deferring your Social Security until you are 67 instead of taking it at 62. Sure, you will get 25% more per year five years later (if you live). But if you defer it until you are 67 you will be 82 before you recoup the 5 years of lost SS checks, and see the first penny of overall gain. Most people don’t want to wait years to get a return on a solar installation for their home. They may not plan to stay in that home, they may want to use the money for more immediate tangible desires, they may not want the headaches of maintenance of those systems, and may be worried about being able to sell a solar house in the future. If a solar home can guarantee a one year break even point and then significant savings in the future, it will take off. But that hasn’t happened. Like owning a personal computer in the 1970’s, the main benefit of solar today is the sense of satisfaction of having done it. For most people they just want what comes with no work or investment, from the utility company. 

  20. I will like to go Green..The
    I will like to go Green..The cost of electricity in my country is berry high…

  21. Solar is not without
    Solar is not without challenges. See Kauai’s experience here:http://www.technologyreview.com/news/534266/hawaiis-solar-push-strains-the-grid/&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br />I installed a 5kw system 3 years ago and it has operated flawlessly;Not a single hick-up and has produced 1MW more than consumption in each of those 3 years.&nbsp; <br />On the payback issue, I could not find an investment that would ‘pay’ $1500/year on $20,000 anywhere these days.

  22. Solar energy is an important
    Solar energy is an important part of life and has been since the beginning of time. Increasingly, man is learning how to harness this important resource and use it to replace traditional energy sources. Solar energy cells can be used to produce the power for a calculator or a watch. They can also be used to produce enough power to run an entire city. With that kind of versatility, it is a great energy source.

  23. Sure lets use solar to
    Sure lets use solar to generate electrical power from the sun, but first use the free energy from under your feet by using geothermal heat pump system saving half the number of solar panels you would us. Honor the earth by using free energy from the earth. Add one part energy from the sun and get 3-4 parts of free energy from the earth. Under ground the earth stays a constant temperture year round in my area it is 62 degrees. By taking the energy from the ground I only need to raise it 8 degrees to make it 70 degrees in my home. No outside components hail, cold, hot can destroy my components heating, cooling and generating hot water for my home. Operates 24,7,365 days a year.

  24. <b>Gerald M.</b>:
    <b>Gerald M.</b>: I’m going to have step in and challenge you on that one. A "geothermal" heat pump is better called a ground-source heat pump and it’s certainly not free. Without the generous tax credits, it would not be feasible for homes. Please see the article I wrote on this topic a while back:&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br /><a href="http://energyvanguard.com/blog-building-science-HERS-BPI/bid/54408/Does-a-Geothermal-Heat-Pump-Count-as-a-Renewable-Energy-Source"><i>Does a Geothermal Heat Pump Count as a Renewable Energy Source?</i></a>&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br />Solar electricity free isn’t free either, but its costs are in the installation. It generally costs $3500-4000 per kilowatt to install. Ground-source heat pumps have installation costs and operating costs because they use electricity, just like a regular air-source heat pump.

  25. According to ASHRAE GHP
    According to ASHRAE GHP systems work for 24 years as compared to a conventional system which works for 14 years before it must be replaced. I have a 6,000 sf home that has 9 tons of Ground Source Heat Pumps and it cost on the average of $80 per month for electricity…heating, cooling, and hot water…I know it works. Installed in 2010 at a cost of $300 less than a conventional system. 6 boreholes 300′ deep with 1" HDPE pipe and reverse return gives me my own ground utility. Geothermal heat pump system runs 24/7/365 days a year regardless if the sun shines or wind blows. Hope Crossing in OKC has installed 300 Habit homes out of 500 to be built with ground source heat pump systems. Research comparing ground-source (geothermal) heat pump and variable refrigerant flow heating and cooling systems at the ASHRAE headquarters building in Atlanta, Georgia. https://www.geoexchange.org/library/download-info/performance-hvac-systems-ashrae-headquarters-building/ Sure GSHP systems are renewable just like solar panels generate electrical power when the sun hits them, the ground is warmed by the sun everytime the sun hits the earth. Without the sun no solar panels would work and the earth would be to cold from lack of sun shine.

  26. Consensus seems to be that
    Consensus seems to be that this technology is win-win, but simply needs more time to develop and improve. It’s not so much a debate as it is a series of speculations of varying positivity.

  27. Solar energy is an important
    Solar energy is an important part of life and has been since the beginning of time. Increasingly, man is learning how to harness this important resource and use it to replace traditional energy sources. Solar energy cells can be used to produce the power for a calculator or a watch. They can also be used to produce enough power to run an entire city. With that kind of versatility, it is a great energy source.

  28. Sure lets use solar to
    Sure lets use solar to generate electrical power from the sun, but first use the free energy from under your feet by using geothermal heat pump system saving half the number of solar panels you would us. Honor the earth by using free energy from the earth. Add one part energy from the sun and get 3-4 parts of free energy from the earth. Under ground the earth stays a constant temperture year round in my area it is 62 degrees. By taking the energy from the ground I only need to raise it 8 degrees to make it 70 degrees in my home. No outside components hail, cold, hot can destroy my components heating, cooling and generating hot water for my home. Operates 24,7,365 days a year.

  29. Gerald M.:
    Gerald M.: I’m going to have step in and challenge you on that one. A “geothermal” heat pump is better called a ground-source heat pump and it’s certainly not free. Without the generous tax credits, it would not be feasible for homes. Please see the article I wrote on this topic a while back: 
     
    Does a Geothermal Heat Pump Count as a Renewable Energy Source? 
     
    Solar electricity free isn’t free either, but its costs are in the installation. It generally costs $3500-4000 per kilowatt to install. Ground-source heat pumps have installation costs and operating costs because they use electricity, just like a regular air-source heat pump.

  30. According to ASHRAE GHP
    According to ASHRAE GHP systems work for 24 years as compared to a conventional system which works for 14 years before it must be replaced. I have a 6,000 sf home that has 9 tons of Ground Source Heat Pumps and it cost on the average of $80 per month for electricity…heating, cooling, and hot water…I know it works. Installed in 2010 at a cost of $300 less than a conventional system. 6 boreholes 300′ deep with 1″ HDPE pipe and reverse return gives me my own ground utility. Geothermal heat pump system runs 24/7/365 days a year regardless if the sun shines or wind blows. Hope Crossing in OKC has installed 300 Habit homes out of 500 to be built with ground source heat pump systems. Research comparing ground-source (geothermal) heat pump and variable refrigerant flow heating and cooling systems at the ASHRAE headquarters building in Atlanta, Georgia. https://www.geoexchange.org/library/download-info/performance-hvac-systems-ashrae-headquarters-building/ Sure GSHP systems are renewable just like solar panels generate electrical power when the sun hits them, the ground is warmed by the sun everytime the sun hits the earth. Without the sun no solar panels would work and the earth would be to cold from lack of sun shine.

  31. Consensus seems to be that
    Consensus seems to be that this technology is win-win, but simply needs more time to develop and improve. It’s not so much a debate as it is a series of speculations of varying positivity.

  32. Gerald:&nbsp; <br /&gt
    Gerald:&nbsp; <br />If the sun was the primary source heating the earth then the temperature would get colder the deeper we dig. The opposite is true. Radioactive decay is why the center of the earth is so hot. This has little impact on your GSHP system. Heating and Cooling systems trade energy and use the mass around your boreholes as an energy bank. If your heating and cooling loads vary too greatly then the average temperature around your boreholes will change over time.

  33. Gerald: 

    Gerald: 
    If the sun was the primary source heating the earth then the temperature would get colder the deeper we dig. The opposite is true. Radioactive decay is why the center of the earth is so hot. This has little impact on your GSHP system. Heating and Cooling systems trade energy and use the mass around your boreholes as an energy bank. If your heating and cooling loads vary too greatly then the average temperature around your boreholes will change over time.

  34. I live in Georgia. I wanted
    I live in Georgia. I wanted to incorporate a AC Solar system into my "nearly passive house". I am not very bright, so I have been trying to figure out where I can sell my excess power, Georgia Power has no more slots left for their 5 yr. .17/kWh schema. So i guess without resorting to DC, roof top solar ins dead in Georgia, unless I get on a waiting list to maybe, possibly, at some future date be able to sell my power to someone. &nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br />Allison, is this the state of things here? If you know of a way to make AC solar work and whom to sell the power to, let me know.&nbsp; <br />&nbsp; <br />Yours lovingly, Leo

  35. I live in Georgia. I wanted
    I live in Georgia. I wanted to incorporate a AC Solar system into my “nearly passive house”. I am not very bright, so I have been trying to figure out where I can sell my excess power, Georgia Power has no more slots left for their 5 yr. .17/kWh schema. So i guess without resorting to DC, roof top solar ins dead in Georgia, unless I get on a waiting list to maybe, possibly, at some future date be able to sell my power to someone.  
     
    Allison, is this the state of things here? If you know of a way to make AC solar work and whom to sell the power to, let me know. 
     
    Yours lovingly, Leo

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