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Solar power rental
January 11, 2007 2:04 PM   Subscribe

CitizenRe is a solar power rental company for the home. Free to install (!), a monthly rental fee is equal to what would normally be paid to the power company. Video.
posted by stbalbach (67 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
1. The calculator seems to imply a 25-year contract, but other pages say "up to" 25 years
2. Electricity costs from the utility are assumed to go up

It will be impressive if the business model actually works.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:14 PM on January 11, 2007


Wow. Really cool concept.
posted by mcstayinskool at 2:16 PM on January 11, 2007


they have over 3,000 installations? That's pretty impressive.
posted by delmoi at 2:17 PM on January 11, 2007


other pages say "up to" 25 years

Year to year, 5-year or 25-year. The difference being at the end of each term they re-calculate the rate based on current rates.

It is unclear what happens if you get the 25-year plan then sell the house (the average homeowner moves every 7-years).
posted by stbalbach at 2:27 PM on January 11, 2007


This may be ideal for condo complexes with shared electric utility rates. If the biz model actually works. There should be property tax incentives for things like this (and green-roofing).
posted by tkchrist at 2:30 PM on January 11, 2007


Fixed rate electricity for 25 years? That's incredible all by itself.
posted by boo_radley at 2:33 PM on January 11, 2007


I was interested until I read this:

You must maintain a dedicated residential telephone line. Again, if you fail to maintain a connection with your local telephone service, this may be grounds for default in the Forward Rental Agreement, and your REnU may be removed.

We're a cell-phone-only house and not interested in dropping another $30 to only serve this. I wish they didn't have to "call home" every night or could use an internet connection...
posted by pwb503 at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2007


I want my house to be heated by Ed Begley's sense of smug self-satisfaction.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:37 PM on January 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


This is the coolest thing I've seen in a long fucking while. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Is there something I've missed?
posted by Jimbob at 2:38 PM on January 11, 2007


I wish they didn't have to "call home" every night or could use an internet connection...

I'm sure that would be a pretty trivial issue for them to solve in the near future.
posted by Jimbob at 2:40 PM on January 11, 2007


We're a cell-phone-only house and not interested in dropping another $30 to only serve this

Wow. That objection is not too far from "Well, it only comes in Orange and my favorite color is Blue!"
posted by vacapinta at 2:46 PM on January 11, 2007


The calculator is pretty cool to

"Additionally, over that same time period, your REnU will eliminate 220 tons of CO2, 735 lbs of NOx, 1050 lbs of SO2, 42 lbs of PM, 10 lbs of VOC, and 124 lbs of CO. That is equivalent to taking approximately, 38 automobiles off of the road, or planting 646 trees."
posted by thisisdrew at 2:51 PM on January 11, 2007


That is a pretty cool idea, I like when people actually apply green thinking in a useful and actual way, instead of the usual pie in sky solar powered turtleneck of the future way.

Now someone tear it to shreds!


I assume for a small additional charge Ed Begley stands outside of your house facing east and reflects extra morning sunlight off his giant wrinkly forehead?
posted by Divine_Wino at 2:59 PM on January 11, 2007


Is there something I've missed? Yup: the sun doesn't shine at night.

From that site: A REnU also gives you electricity during the time of day that electricity is most in demand.

Not so's you could notice it. Peak electrical power usage in New Yorkin December, January, and February is at 6PM, after the sun has gone down.

Also read the page about the security deposit. I see a lot of opportunity there for shenanigans.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:03 PM on January 11, 2007


I doubt they work well when covered with snow.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:15 PM on January 11, 2007


From the FAQ page:

"There are no frequently asked questions at this time."

Heh.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:17 PM on January 11, 2007


Yup: the sun doesn't shine at night.

I mean things we don't already know about solar, Steven.

Besides which, a "complete solar solution" can include storage cells for low-sun periods.

I doubt they work well when covered with snow.

True, but not likely ever to be an issue where I live. I'm considering the concept as a whole, hoping someone brings it to Australia.
posted by Jimbob at 3:23 PM on January 11, 2007


I've been in contact with them about putting this up at Chez Skorgu. They seem quite nice, but I get the feeling some of their technical details have yet to be worked out. Specifically, their default setup doesn't have any provision for a battery bank, which I'd like to have. I've been trying to get a solid answer out of them if their installer can integrate with a pre-existing inverter/battery setup, but I haven't gotten any response yet. Maybe I'll bug them tomorrow.
posted by Skorgu at 3:24 PM on January 11, 2007


Yup: the sun doesn't shine at night.
C'mon, Steve -- everybody knows that you just hook up a spotlight to shine on the panels at night.
posted by forrest at 3:26 PM on January 11, 2007


this is interesting, Skorgu, you should keep us abreast of any pitfalls. I'm seriously thinking about it, but going to do some homework on it prior to committing.
posted by edgeways at 3:31 PM on January 11, 2007


SunEdison does the same thing, but only with large commercial installations. As near as I can tell, their plan is built on harvesting tax subsidies and the difference in the price utilities pay for renewable and market power.
posted by milkrate at 3:39 PM on January 11, 2007


Hey JimBob, let's start the biz in Australia.
posted by strawberryviagra at 3:57 PM on January 11, 2007


vacapinta writes "Wow. That objection is not too far from 'Well, it only comes in Orange and my favorite color is Blue!'"

No, it's more akin to saying "this will cost me $30/month over list price". That's close to 50% of my current electricity costs.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:58 PM on January 11, 2007


About time.
posted by nickyskye at 3:59 PM on January 11, 2007


But you don't do this to save money, you do this to save the world!
posted by mrnutty at 4:00 PM on January 11, 2007


Yup: the sun doesn't shine at night.

In the interest of encouraging this thread to continue down the path of such searing factual insight, I would like to inform all of you currently connected to a large-scale power grid that coal neither mines itself nor trucks itself to the power plant, and water must first be dammed before it can be channeled through a turbine.

We shall surely see a whole Gap's worth of solar-powered turtlenecks before we will see a home successfully electrified by these contraptions.

Excelsior!
posted by gompa at 4:03 PM on January 11, 2007


mrnutty writes "But you don't do this to save money, you do this to save the world!"

I think you're missing they're entire point. If you want to save the world, you can get your own solar panels. This is for people who want to do it on the cheap and easy. To quote, "And since the solar power you generate will reduce the need for electricity from your power company, your net payment should always be equal to, or less than, what you’re paying now." This (huge) selling point is kind of ruined if an additional monthly fee for phone use gets tagged on.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:04 PM on January 11, 2007


No, I get it. But your own solar panels can run $20,000. Whereas this is a much much lower cost way to "save the world".

Though I still don't get how they don't lose tons of money, let alone make any.
posted by mrnutty at 4:13 PM on January 11, 2007


Steven C. Den Beste writes "Yup: the sun doesn't shine at night."

Well, I think you're missing the point, too. I assume that they're selling back into the grid when they're generating during the day, so even though residential usage peaks at night, this system could facilitate a net shift from fossil to solar sources.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:13 PM on January 11, 2007


I mean things we don't already know about solar, Steven.

OK, then to be serious: this doesn't save coal. It doesn't reduce emissions of CO2. It would not do so even if it was broadly deployed.

A lot of people who favor this idea don't understand how the power grid works. The salient point is that power generation and power consumption on an instantaneous level must match one another. There's a central control office for each major grid which predicts power usage for any given day and tells producers when to turn on and off again. Some power producers run 24 hours, some only run for a few hours during peak usage, some run part of the day and then turn off again.

If you overproduce, then you get fires and explosions. If you underproduce you get brownouts. Generation has to match consumption very closely, and they generally try to stay within a couple of percent.

That chart I linked to earlier is from one of those control offices. There are predictions for any given day, but those are never exact, and intermittent generation plants may need to come online earlier or later than predicted, and stay online longer or shorter than expected. Which means that the generation plants have to be ready to go at a few minutes notice.

And that's the problem. When it comes to coal-fired generation plants, the only way they can do that is to already be burning coal, in order to keep the boilers hot, with all the energy involved being wasted. If they start late, it doesn't reduce the amount of coal they burn.

The real problem involved with solar cells is that their output cannot be controlled. It's entirely a function of conditions. Clouds go by overhead and the output of the solar cells drops by half, or worse, for instance. It isn't possible for the control room to closely predict how much electricity the solar cells will produce from minute to minute, and if solar cell output drops precipitously, the control room has to be ready with backup power from some other source to step in and replace it.

Which means that there has to be a coal-fired plant somewhere burning coal to keep its boiler going, which is capable of producing as much power as the solar cells do, which can be connected to the system at a moment's notice if output from solar cells suddenly drops a lot. And it keeps burning coal even if its power isn't needed.

As long as the number of these installations numbers in the thousands in any given area, they're insignificant. The variability in generation from them is in the noise. But if they become widespread, they won't reduce CO2 production because there will have to be coal-fired generation plants running hot that can be connected to the grid at a moment's notice, which will be burning coal even when the solar cells are producing power at peak capacity.

By the way, wind power is even worse in this regard because wind power generation is even more intermittent and even harder to predict ahead of time.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:18 PM on January 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


But don't many solar installations have batteries for power storage to account for intermittentcy?
posted by mrnutty at 4:25 PM on January 11, 2007


SCDB, you forgot batteries.
posted by Malor at 4:45 PM on January 11, 2007


Steven C: and if solar cell output drops precipitously...

Seems to me that the largest flaw in your amazingly convoluted rationalization of why solar power can never do any good is that once home solar panels "become widespread", their total output does not drop suddenly and unpredictably. The sunshine doesn't normally just disappear without warning over a large area. Since generating stations are typically many miles apart, I think the relevant areas for power management purposes would be more than wide enough to ensure reasonably predictable photovoltaic contributions, changing gradually over hours, not suddenly in minutes. Not that I think they're likely to be sufficiently widely adopted to actually make a difference, but if they did, the output would not be quite so unpredictable as to leave your argument at all connected to reality.
posted by sfenders at 4:45 PM on January 11, 2007


But don't many solar installations have batteries for power storage to account for intermittentcy?

That solution doesn't scale. As long as you're talking about a few thousand installations, you can make that many batteries. But there is no feasible way to store electrical energy and release it again at power levels representing a significant fraction of the amount of electrical power we use.

Currently we (the US) use about 400 gigawatts average, but peak demand can exceed 1 terawatt.

So suppose we wanted to store 2 hours worth of power at 40 gigawatts. How many lead-acid batteries would be needed?

Medium capacity lead-acid batteries are 12 volts and can produce 100 amp-hours, which is to say about 4.3 *10^6 joules.

40 gigawatts for 2 hours is 288*10^12 joules. So it would require 67 million batteries of that kind.

40 gigawatts for 2 hours represents less than 1% of the average electrical power used in the US. And the batteries would have a working life of 3-5 years, after which they'd all have to be replaced.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:05 PM on January 11, 2007


So suppose we wanted to store 2 hours worth of power at 40 gigawatts. How many lead-acid batteries would be needed?

Chemical energy is only one way of storing energy.

How's about this for an idea; hydro. Use the power we want to store to pump water uphill into a reservoir. When we need that power again, let it run downhill through the turbines. Probably not highly efficient, but probably better than lead-acid batteries.
posted by Jimbob at 5:13 PM on January 11, 2007


SFenders, if you have millions of these then very high frequency fluctuations average out, but you get longer fluctuations which are much higher amplitude. Which is to say that it won't fluctuate much minute-to-minute but it's going to fluctuate a hell of a lot hour-to-hour -- unless you're somewhere like Tucson.

On any day with scattered clouds, which is common weather much of the year all over this country, local solar cell output is going to fluctuate widely.

But the biggest problem here is that it cannot be controlled. It isn't consistent and that makes controlling the power grid immensely more difficult.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:14 PM on January 11, 2007


"I say it can't be done!" --some knowledgeable prehistoric caveman dismissing fellow cavemen rubbing sticks together to make fire.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:18 PM on January 11, 2007


Steven, it would seem to me that with enough solar panels in deployment to make a significant electrical contribution, that over time, the forecasting models would be updated to take advantage of this power source (and have some impact on coal/gas usage).

Peak power planning involves more than just having a coal plant ready to fire, or spinning up another turbine. Purchased power agreements are in place across the country and control centers buy, sell and wheel throughout the day. There are a variety of other tools used to reduce power, some negotiated with corporate customers, and some actually remotely turn off residential water heaters in homes.

Power control centers have some pretty elaborate weather monitoring systems, I could easily see a model constructed that would take into account a significant number home-based solar panels.

But, hey... it's been a decade since I wrote utility management software, so things may have changed.
posted by F Mackenzie at 5:39 PM on January 11, 2007


The CitizenRe system is designed to be used in states where they have established agreements to sell electricity back to the grid. They state that you are should expect the credits you earn selling electricity back into the grid to balance with the energy you pull out from the grid.

1. SCDB's points about this scaling with respect to the gird are on point. The grid is extremely fragile.

2. The right solution may be local power storage - batteries, flywheels, water towers, capacitor banks, whatever. This problem isn't a trivial one, but that doesn't mean it is impossible.

3. This will most likely only work in sun-belt areas close to the equator. Southern California might be fine, but Oregon and Washington probably won't. In addition to the cloud cover found in the pacific northwest, the curvature of the earth results in attenuated sunlight up here.

4. It isn't clear that covering the roof of the average house will provide enough energy to power that house. This will be particularly problematic for apartment and condo towers.

5. I suspect that either VC money or government subsidies or both are keeping the costs down. Will the model still work in five years when these souces dry up?

6. Frozen power prices for 25 years may sound attractive, but do you really want to make that bet, for that long? If you believe that the Iraq war was is all about oil, then it is clear that vast amounts of money are being thrown at energy problems. The next batch might actually hit the mark and dramatically lower power costs. Consider the cost and availability of bandwidth in the early '90s and its cost and availability now. If pebble bed nuclear reactors are accepted and deployed they could have a similar impact on electricity costs.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:42 PM on January 11, 2007


but you get longer fluctuations which are much higher amplitude.

Sure, but the same is true for wind power, and that hasn't stopped its large-scale commercial adoption. It could be a problem, but surely it's one that can be managed at least until you try to get some rather large fraction of the total from these variable sources.
posted by sfenders at 5:51 PM on January 11, 2007


Jimbob, hydro storage of the nature you describe is generally about 75-80% efficient, the most efficient known way to store large amounts of energy, actually.
posted by maxwelton at 5:58 PM on January 11, 2007


I should add that a number of utilities already utilize this pumping system to store surplus power from off-peak times and feed it back into the grid during peak hours. Of course, you need to keep that water at the ambient environmental temperature at all times, so you're not saving any coal...oh, wait, you are. It's like someone actually spent more than 20 seconds thinking about it.
posted by maxwelton at 6:02 PM on January 11, 2007


Renewable energy works when distributed, scaled and from multiple sources (sun, wind, hydro, bio). For example, I buy my grid power from a wind provider, but could supplement it with home solar. And if both solar and wind are not generating enough the grid will make up for it with coal or nuclear. If enough people did what I did, the overall need for dirty power goes down and the number of local point generation sytems goes up. It's like the difference between a P2P nework and a FTP based system. The first is redundant and distributed, the second is monolithic and prone to overload.
posted by stbalbach at 6:06 PM on January 11, 2007


b1tr0t: It isn't clear that covering the roof of the average house will provide enough energy to power that house.

I think it's pretty obvious that it wouldn't provide nearly enough energy for that, in the parts of the world where all the heavy users of energy reside. Not even close, not even during peak sunlight hours, if, as you mention, you're counting everyone who lives in apartment buildings. I don't think anyone was suggesting we should get all our power from solar energy, although of course some people think it's theoretically possible, with just a few tens of thousands of square miles of solar arrays making hydrogen. Maybe when we build cities on the moon we can run them all on solar power. For now, there is nothing wrong with using on a smaller scale in those sunny parts of the world where it's economically viable.
posted by sfenders at 6:08 PM on January 11, 2007


SFenders, commercial adoption of wind power isn't "large-scale". The biggest one I've heard of is the Irish project. When it's complete it will produce 500 megawatts when the wind is blowing. That's 1/8th of the power produced by the Dalles Dam, and 1/800th of the average power used by the US.

All existing "alternative energy" production facilities are little more than demonstrations and/or trophy projects. They're for public relations, but that's pretty much all they're good for at this point.

(According to this page, in 2004 California wind power produced 4,258 million kilowatt-hours. That turns out to be about 485 megawatts average, about the same as the Irish project. And they've already used the best sites in California to get that much. As the site itself points out, it's only 1.5% of California's electrical consumption.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:10 PM on January 11, 2007


Decent overview of pumped hydro.

The Mrs. and I are going to be building a home this year. We'd like to utilize green power, but thus far have remained unconvinced about solar up here at rainy 47 degrees north.
posted by maxwelton at 6:12 PM on January 11, 2007


And I'm waiting for them to get solar towers going.
posted by Jimbob at 6:15 PM on January 11, 2007


The hydro topic, typically called "pumped storage," has been around for a while. It's effective when you can pump uphill during non-peak hours (like when your nuke plant or dams generators are spinning at night and your demand is low), then releasing the reservoir during peak hours. I believe this used to be done only at night, but I've heard they often get in an extra day run now.

From a solar perspective, when your peak output hours probably coincide with peak usage hours (at least in summer), you may not be able to take advantage of existing pumped storage plants.

(As an aside, the pumped storage facility near me failed last year when the reservoir broke, dumping over a billion gallons of water down the valley. Quite a mess.)
posted by F Mackenzie at 6:17 PM on January 11, 2007


By the way, wind power is even worse in this regard because wind power generation is even more intermittent and even harder to predict ahead of time.

And yet somehow the nation of Denmark gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind power.

Must be a parlour trick.
posted by gompa at 6:17 PM on January 11, 2007


commercial adoption of wind power isn't "large-scale".

I guess I'm just not thinking big enough; your idea of scale is apparently much larger than mine. According to a quick web search, that Irish project, small though it may be compared to the largest electrical generating stations in the world, is "expected to generate 10 percent of the country's energy needs".

from 2002: Europe leads the world in its use of wind power. Denmark generates 15 percent of its energy needs using wind power with Germany and Sweden close behind. By 2020 Denmark expects to generate 50 percent of it power demands using wind.

More recently: The European Union, which has officially expanded to 25 members since May 1st 2004, remains the leading region of the world for wind power. An additional 5 856 MW was installed in 2004 for a present total installed capacity of 34 366 MW, i.e. a 20.3% increase with respect to 2003 (see table 1).

I guess Europe must be a really windy place compared to California.
posted by sfenders at 6:28 PM on January 11, 2007


I guess I'm just not thinking big enough; your idea of scale is apparently much larger than mine.

What I'm trying to say is that we're not going to cease burning coal in large quantities to produce electricity during our lifetimes. The US currently burns 650 million metric tons of coal per year. That will increase during our lifetimes, not decrease, even if we install solar cells on our roofs and put up windmills.

Energy use in the US is growing at something like a 3% rate per year, compounded. These new technologies, even if they work, cannot be deployed at a fast enough rate to even cover that total growth, let alone to offset existing power generation from fossil fuels.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:40 PM on January 11, 2007


Germany seems to be doing pretty damn well with solar energy on a relatively large scale, and it's getting bigger all the time. Sure, Germany is miniscule compared to the U.S.; however, the rest of Europe is looking at what's going on there very, very closely and showing all signs of following suit in their own time. No, it's not coast-to-coast United States, but it could work here with scaled implementation, on a state-by-state or regional basis.

Solar would work. Maybe it's not the absolute best option, but it's a hell of a lot better than anything else we've got going right now. Solar energy is a lot easier to implement and work with than most people know; the problem is that most people dont really understand how it works in any practical sense, because it's not used here on any kind of scale that can be studied. It is in Germany, though, and the people studying what's going on over there are beginning to understand how much they've misunderstood solar power all along.

The only real investment is up front, putting in the equipment. After that it pays for itself very quickly. The real issue is the energy infrastructure and their remora, all of whom stand to lose mind-boggling amounts of money, and who are standing in the way of any sort of alternative energy solutions at all being implemented.

Germany FORCED the issue on the energy companies by bypassing them. In the beginning, the German government asked the energy industry there to cooperate with the endeavor of introducing widespread solar energy to the grid. Naturally, the old school energy boys utterly refused: they were terrified.

So the German government did what the US government seems wholly unable to do: they blew right past the energy industry and carved out a solar niche by themselves. They actually spent the money and started very, very small. Within a surprisingly short time, the project has grown exponentially and the whole experience has so far been massively successful. The whole thing turned a profit in no time at all, and the energy infrastructure gnashed its teeth the whole time. Germany now has a solar infrastructure in place that the entire world is studying...and admiring. They've really done an amazing, remarkable, wonderful thing there.

I recently worked on a large series of interviews for an alternative energy documentary on this very subject (I should dig out those files and watch them again; it was really interesting stuff), and I learned a LOT about solar power that I did not know. I also got a full-scale schooling on the German implementation of solar. Solar power is a hell of a lot more viable than many people believe it is, and definitely a lot more doable than the good old boys in the energy industry want you to know about. These guys are losing sleep at night trying to keep up the misinformation campaign and shuttling cash to the appropriate politicians to make sure anything having to do with solar energy is never treated with any seriousness at all in Washington.

Whatever else, something has to be done: we're running out of time. I say good on this company for making a go at it, even if it doesnt work in the end. At least theyre trying. We are doomed unless we find a way to kick the energy industry and their all-powerful lobbyists to the curb, and fast. They are sucking this country dry, and what kills me is that no matter how much money they have in the end, when the energy runs out, it still won't buy them ice cubes for their bourbon.
posted by perilous at 6:51 PM on January 11, 2007


perilous -- why do you hate 'merica?
posted by maxwelton at 7:16 PM on January 11, 2007


These new technologies, even if they work, cannot be deployed at a fast enough rate to even cover that total growth, let alone to offset existing power generation from fossil fuels.

Well yes, they do work, and that's probably true, although predicting that the future will be much like the past only works until it doesn't. But what's that got to do with anything that's been said here? Solar panels don't care, they won't go on strike if you refuse to stop burning coal. Anyway, according to this IEWA forecast, electricity use in Europe (where they appear to take renewable energy seriously) is projected to grow faster than wind energy under the "business as usual" scenario to 2030. Of course, it is futile to try and predict that far out, but still.

Solar power is harder to predict, as there's much more room for technological improvement and for increased use. Even in Germany, where they have something like a third(?) of all the solar power generating capacity in the world, and contributed greatly to the recent silicon shortage with all the rapid growth, they get only 1% of total electricity from solar. Better than nothing, but still I think it's just getting started. I'd not be too surprised if it makes up a good fraction of the difference between electricity consumption growth and wind power growth in Europe by 2030.
posted by sfenders at 7:32 PM on January 11, 2007


This company is too good to be true, never mind the discussion about the merits of solar/wind power. Somewhere, somehow, I suspect that people who go with this company are getting scammed and will lose in the end. And that is a pity.

steven, you have a very convincing argument, but I don't think that solar power should be abandoned. Refined so that it works better with the existing systems, maybe.
posted by ashbury at 7:42 PM on January 11, 2007


I recently worked on a large series of interviews for an alternative energy documentary on this very subject, and I learned a LOT about solar power that I did not know.

perilous, I think you ate up a whole lot of hype about alternative energy sources. None of your provided links back up your claims.

1. The German projects are expected to turn a profit. They have not yet, probably because theywere just recently built. Traditional power plants are amortized over decades, not years. If a solar plant could turn a profit in even five years, that would be huge news. No one would even think of traditional power sources any more.

2. The German government setup absolutely massive subsidies for electric power. My utility charges about USD .075 per kWh of ordinary electricity. The German government requires utilities to buy solar electricity at EUR 0.481 (USD 0.624). That means that the Germans are paying for solar over 8 times what I'm paying for electricity. That makes for a nice technology showcase, but does not scale.

Germany's funds would be better used sponsoring basic research into solar energy. Subsidising industrial generation of solar power makes you look good but is really just silly.

This company is too good to be true, never mind the discussion about the merits of solar/wind power. Somewhere, somehow, I suspect that people who go with this company are getting scammed and will lose in the end. And that is a pity.

The deposits don't seem too big, and your can probably keep the solar panels if the company goes under. Someone like Paul Allen, famous for his reverse-midas touch, is proably bankrolling this crackpot project. If so, this does more public good than buying another World's Largest Yacht. Public money should be spent on basic energy research, not subsidising solar pipedreams (as is the case in Germany).
posted by b1tr0t at 7:56 PM on January 11, 2007


Wind power in Germany is also heavily subsidized, with the power companies being forced to purchase electricity generated by wind mills at a price well above free market rates.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:04 PM on January 11, 2007


And oil is heavily subsidised by the millitary spending and foreign investment required to secure supplies.

Your point?

If your main argument is that alternative energy sources suck because they require government subsidies to get them off the ground, then sorry, you fail Managing Global Resources 101.
posted by Jimbob at 9:25 PM on January 11, 2007


Steven:

It's a particularly US mindset that coal is needed. Why is coal needed? Because uh... that's just how it's done in the world USA. The reality is that plenty of countries (that are not the USA) power their grid and their economy without giving a damn about coal, coal being the kind of tiny sliver on the generation pie-chart that you'd think it must be some newfangled renewable system. But it's not a renewable on the way in, it's on the way out. Coal is not needed. Say it. Coal is not needed.

You argue that coal is needed to balance shifts in grid demand, yet then go on to say that coal powerstations are so poor at balancing power that lower energy demand (due to renewable supply coming online) will not save coal because the powerplants are too unresponsive to be able to rapidly ramp output without keeping the fires hot. Can you see that this doesn't work? Sure, it may take the USA a while to figure that out, but other types of power station are far better at rapid and massive power ramping. You're only thinking it has to be coal because that's how it's done in the USA and there must be a good reason for that - there just must! But actually, it's not even done that way in the USA. Short notice ramping is typically handled by other plants, with coal ramping on a far more conservative schedule.

Granted, there naturally reasons for why the status quo of coal in the USA came about, but not reasons that must always apply in any meaningful sense. Reasons of interests and power and convenience, nothing that holds much gumption should a different mindset take hold. Nothing to do with the laws of physics.

The USA has a lot of inertia. A lot. But never confuse inertia with what must be.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:02 PM on January 11, 2007


That means that the Germans are paying for solar over 8 times what I'm paying for electricity. That makes for a nice technology showcase, but does not scale.

I'm not sure I agree. When you can successfully implement it, people paying more for energy is something that scales excellantly! :-) And it preemptively helps avoid all sorts of downstream problems at the same time.

The argument could also be made that they are paying the actual cost for what they consume, while you are being heavily subsidised, because your bill does not include the costs created by cheap&nasty power stations. Worse, you would be forcing many of those costs onto people who had nothing to do with the transaction between you and your power station.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:18 PM on January 11, 2007


It's a particularly US mindset that coal is needed. Why is coal needed? Because uh... that's just how it's done in the USA. ... The USA has a lot of inertia.

The US also has a lot of coal, far more than any other nation on Earth. We have 115 billion metric tons of anthracite, and another 100 billion metric tons of bituminous coal. It makes a great deal of sense for us to rely on it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:43 PM on January 11, 2007


Thanks to stbalbach for an interesting post. I've been looking into doing some research on the potential for energy service companies (ESCOs) to branch out into support of RE alongside energy efficiency and this looks like someone is already trying to effectively do that. ESCOs are something we're likely to see a lot more of at the domestic level in the near future (they're primarily at the industrial/commercial level at the moment). The idea with ESCOs is that you sign up for long contracts and the ESCO makes a capital invesmtent in your home, insulation, for example, then takes a share in the reduced heating costs for the home. You and the ESCO are both better off and hopefully so is the environment. There tend to be regulatory problems with some models for this in many regulatory environments so its not as awidespread as it might be. Expansion of the idea to RE is interesting, I'd be interested to know more about their business model (so interested I will get in touch with them when I actually get some research time.)
posted by biffa at 4:31 AM on January 12, 2007


Jimbob: This is the coolest thing I've seen in a long fucking while. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Is there something I've missed?

The main problem is that RE technologies ted to be fairly costly to buy (especially true for PV cells) so it requires an investor who can afford to buy the things upfront then not realise much of an income over time. Many individuals can't do this, the company in the FPP is acting as a proxy and then getting its money back from their regular bills. Is this sutainable economically? Don't know.

How's about this for an idea; hydro. Use the power we want to store to pump water uphill into a reservoir. When we need that power again, let it run downhill through the turbines. Probably not highly efficient, but probably better than lead-acid batteries.

They're about the same, 70-80% efficient, depending on the rate of discharge in the battery and how well the pumped hydro facility is managed against demand. There are a few large pumped hydro faciliites in the UK (as well as elsewhere) mostly filled from non-RE sources to use at periods of high demand. The advantage of pumped hydro over batteries is the scaling up is much more cost effective.
posted by biffa at 5:23 AM on January 12, 2007


I expect EVERY one of you "Inconvenient Truth" fans to have one of these installed immediately. PLease report back to us on your experience. That is, if you have enough electricity in your solar batteries to power up your computer.

:)
posted by tadellin at 6:19 AM on January 12, 2007


b1tr0t: Germany's funds would be better used sponsoring basic research into solar energy. Subsidising industrial generation of solar power makes you look good but is really just silly.

There comes a point in technological development where you have to enable policy which will pull new technologies out of the R&D phase and into demonstration and then niche applications, increasing in scale until hopefully they will eventually be competitive. Germany has funded the technology across the multiple phases of the maturation process (and continues to do so). Their policy approach bears comparison with the case of large-scale wind energy technology where the Danish Government supported Danish R&D efforts then aided in the establishment of a stable market place via subsidy to the point where Danish companies now dominate the global market and where the price of wind energy is rapidly approaching being directly competitive with traditional fuel sources, possibly more competitive where the negative impacts of these are monetised.

SCDB: wind power isn't "large-scale". The biggest one I've heard of is the Irish project. When it's complete it will produce 500 megawatts when the wind is blowing. That's 1/8th of the power produced by the Dalles Dam

500MW is about the size of a nuclear reactor which I think most people would regard as an example of a larger power station, comparing it with a very large dam is meaningless. Do you have a lot of places where you can build any more of these dam? Are you happy with the ecological damage they will cause? The latest plans for offshore wind in Europe will mean farms in the GW range.

SCDB: Wind power in Germany is also heavily subsidized, with the power companies being forced to purchase electricity generated by wind mills at a price well above free market rates.

Not all that heavily, about 0.08euro/kWh, (about the half the market price of electricity) and not for the whole life of the turbine. I'm afraid I have no idea of the total historical subsidy for coal energy, the current annual figure has settled at around 2 billion euro, though it's been much higher in the past. So much for the free market
posted by biffa at 7:15 AM on January 12, 2007


Im suprised the bush administration isnt subsidizing this as a way to downplay the effects on global warming. I could see Bush Jr. saying, with a straight face, "The beauty of this is, when the temperatures go up, more americans will be able to save the environment by installing solar panels.." or some ridiculous, circular logic.
posted by subaruwrx at 3:17 PM on January 12, 2007


[...] 40 gigawatts for 2 hours is 288*10^12 joules. So it would require 67 million batteries of that kind.

All that is true with those batteries. What solar power really needs is industrial development in batteries for things other than cell phones and cute RFID flashy beepers they give at restaurants. Things like dwelling capacity energy storage. That won't happen until there is a market for that battery.

However, it seems like a great engineering opportunity.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 1:57 PM on January 13, 2007


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