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Saturday March 25th 2023

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Grid-tied PV is Stupid


If we don’t do energy efficiency first nothing else works or makes sense. And as long as the utilities keep the ratepayer ignorant they can keep building new coal nuke gas solar wind etc power plants.  Have we reached peak energy stupidity yet? No

Are you familiar with Saul Griffith?

Back in the day when all PV systems were stand alone the idea of making one’s own renewable energy was driven partly by the desire to take charge of one aspect of life that almost everyone in society had given over to the experts. We all loved the idea of getting off the grid. And we needed to make 100% of the energy we needed (although many people had generator backup). The shared knowledge of home power technology included many of the early ways to get more bang for the buck with using the most energy efficient appliances. The rule of thumb was for every $1 spent on efficiency there was a $3 reduction in the cost of the PV system generating the power. These ideas led many people to think long and hard about their lifestyle and what energy services they really needed and wanted.

Today we live in the world of grid tied PV. Few people are off the grid and few people with PV systems meet 100% of their “needs.” They don’t think about their lifestyle because they always have the grid to power that new plasma TV so they still live in an illusory world with no limits. People are not becoming more conscious of their personal energy use much less becoming aware of the daily solar cycles within which we all must live in order to create a sustainable world. Because people don’t understand their own energy behavior they fail to question the More Bigger Faster cornucopian fallacy that there is an endless supply of energy to power our every want and no down side to ever increased energy use.

Well there is that small issue of CO2, whatever that is, but “they” will figure that out (or maybe “they” are wrong about this climate thing) so we can continue consuming in ignorance. Disinformation is powerful stuff.

Over years of following the development of renewable energy there were several times when projects were proposed that seemed to me not to have been well thought through. Before the advent of grid tied inverters I remember a developer in a Colorado ski town was proposing to power all the new 10,000 sq. ft., above timberline (not passive solar designed) homes with PV systems. I couldn’t think of a better way to show that this solar thing doesn’t work. Rich people are the most likely group to be unclear on this energy thing. They do things like drive a Prius or a Tesla to the airport to take their private jet half way around the world. And the thought of them all showing up for their winter vacations and suddenly powering up a few thousand lights and dozens of hot tubs was sure to crash any PV system known. Another example was the federal government came up with the million solar roof program. One part of the proposal was to put PV on federal buildings. Unfortunately there is not enough roof space to install enough PV to power the energy inefficient buildings that our government owns.  Luckily, neither of these projects ever happened.

We have failed to question the assumptions upon which all of our buildings, food production, transportation and industry were built – the assumption of an unlimited supply of cheap energy. Energy so cheap we could ignore energy efficiency and build systems that were wasteful in the extreme. So wasteful that we are now beginning to see the environmental effects as well as the end of “endless” supplies. The days of ever increasing energy use are over and the implications for the existing buildings, transportation and industry (as well as our more-bigger-faster lifestyles) are disastrous.

There are many predicting doom but that, like the cornucopians’ ideas that we can meet the ever increasing demand with green power, also ignores the concept of energy efficiency.  We can get many of the same energy services for a minor fraction of the energy we have used in the past. We know how to build buildings that use very little energy (doesn’t help fix the one you live in but..). We can make light with a fraction of the power we once used.

And electric transportation will give 10 times the miles of mobility per dollar as gasoline. If I get my personal mobility with an EV and power it with PV from the sunshine that falls on my roof (instead of middle eastern terrorists – sorry I just couldn’t resist being inflammatory – but we do export a billion dollars a day mostly to countries that hate us), I have reduced the national debt, reduced my carbon footprint, reduced the need for resource wars, improved the air quality, kept money in the local economy and bought a hedge against all future increases in the cost of my mobility. I will never again be concerned about cost or supply shortage. I have more peace of mind and I have taken responsibility for the energy I use for personal mobility something that cannot be done with ICE technology. If we all do this we have created a virtual oil field right in our own neighborhood. And my EV is faster than your minivan.

If we question assumptions there are very different future scenarios and very different policies to reach that sustainable future. We certainly don’t need any more power plants, nuclear or otherwise. The question is not about peak oil or global warming. It is, “Have we reached peak energy stupidity yet?” The answer seems to be No.

One example of failing to question the assumptions is the attempt to power wasteful personal transportation with an alternative to oil. A plentiful supply of oil has allowed for the use of inefficient internal combustion engines and ever increasing and unnecessary vehicle power and size. There is nothing like oil. If there was Exxon would be selling us “that.” Trying to power the technology that uses oil with biofuels will not work although many seemingly smart people are trying to do just that. This doesn’t mean we can’t have personal mobility. We just have to question the assumption that the way we do it now makes sense. The 200+ horse power, 4000 pound, 10% efficient internal combustion engine car only makes sense if you have an endless supply of oil and no environmental downside to using it. If we had questioned this assumption 50 years ago we would be in a very different world today.

The problem with energy efficiency is that if I do the best I can and you don’t, it doesn’t work. This is the tragedy of the commons. Socialism is a good thing if we all share the same values. If we all understand our energy use and we all implement the best technologies we can have a renewable energy future that has most of the same features of our present profligately wasteful society. But at the present time it is stupid for me to carry your hot

tub/plasmaTV/wrongly oriented and poorly insulated house/giant SUV lifestyle any further up the ever increasing energy stupidity curve. (Gee, could there be a link between the increased energy prices of 2009 and the economic problems?)

If I do everything to make my life energy efficient I can easily reduce my home energy use to 1/6th the average. (200kWhr down from the national average of 1200kWhr/mo) That makes it easy to power 100% of my home energy use with PV. But if my PV system is grid tied I am dumping any extra of my valuable green energy into your wasteful lifestyle. If I can put any extra into a high value energy service that I can enjoy I reap the benefit rather that letting my neighbor waste it. If I put the extra PV power in my EV I am one happy tea-bagger.

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