Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Should You Unplug From the Grid? (Part Deux)

Can you go all-solar? Not cheaply. Yet.

In this recent article on CNN, a fellow in Florida shows off his alternative-energy lifestyle. It is an interesting article and the fellow is resourceful. But is this a practical lifestyle for most of us?

Probably not, and not yet. Let me explain why.

To begin with, in terms of cost, most of these gadgets cost far more than conventional electricity generation. Solar panels have a finite lifespan, and over their lifetime, will generate electricity at a cost over double, perhaps triple that of conventional electrical rates.

Compounding the problem is that to store this energy, for use when the sun goes down, you have to have a bank of batteries in your home. These are wildly expensive and need regular maintenance, and need to be replaced about every 5-10 years. The "battery problem" multiplies the cost per kW-hour several times again.

So, a the present time, going solar isn't practical for the everyman. For hobbyists and enthusiasts, who are basically experimenting, it can be a fun game to play, but not a cheap one. And the massive amounts of technology involved have an energy cost of their own.

And the amount of work needed to build, install, and maintain such systems can be staggering. Again, for a hobbyist, it may be worthwhile. But for most of us, the labor involved to keep all that equipment running is just too much.

Yes, someday solar and wind power might become so cost-effective that that are in widespread use - even without tax incentives. And when that happens, you can bet the local utility companies will be the first to jump on the bandwagon. Because if the cost is lower, they will move to that technology.

Of course, the irony is, if enough people move away from oil as an energy source, demand for oil will drop. When demand drops, prices will drop. And suddenly, oil becomes "affordable" again and solar and wind power are "too expensive."

Funny how that works, eh?

UPDATE 2021:  In a decade much has changed, but going solar is still problematic at this time.  The utility companies have pushed through regulation reforms so that they no longer have to pay retail prices for electricity generated from homes.  This makes the payback for solar very difficult.

Even with cheap panels from China, companies are not pushing solar installs for homes these days - the labor to install is the big problem.  Panel lease deals used to be attractive, but what happens when you sell the home?  Does the new owner take over the lease?  This has already happened to a friend of mine.

And as others note, tax incentives are nice and all, but unfair to apartment dwellers and others who cannot take advantage of them. In fact, they end up being a windfall to the middle and upper-classes who can afford to invest in solar panels for the long-term payout.

I hope that solar becomes affordable down the road, but that road keeps getting longer and longer.  It is like self-driving cars - coming soon, next year!  Next year is always a good timeline, as you never need to update it.