Thinking Big About Clean Energy

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I want to put a solar panel on my roof so that I am releasing less greenhouse gas into the environment. But then I hear that manufacturing solar panels causes the release of greenhouse gasses, so I have to subtract that from the good I think I’m doing. But then I realize that the people who are making the solar panels have to change their method so they release less greenhouse gas into the environment.

We hear this argument all the time (for example, here). You think you are doing something “green” but it really isn’t green because yadayadayada. I am suspicious of these arguments because they often (though not always) come from people who want us all to keep using fossil Carbon based fuels, for some (unsupportable) reason or another. One might think that these arguments have to be addressed in order to do a rational and well thought out analysis of the decisions you make.

But that is simply not true for three reasons.

Reason One: So what? Nobody tells me I have to make a rational decision about buying the 72 inch wide TV to replace my 64 inch wide TV, but suddenly I’m a bad person if I don’t do a detailed Carbon-based cost benefit analysis when I want to do something EVEN COOLER than having a bigger TV, like putting a freakin’ cool solar panel on my roof? Excuse me, but STFU with our rational argument yammering.

Reason Two: You can’t count. If I put a solar panel on my roof, almost no one is going to discount the value of my house because it gets some free electricity, but a significant number of people are going to pay more for it when I sell it because it is cool. See reason one.

So when I put these together, my personal cost benefit analysis leans towards doing it more than the nay sayers might say. But still, if putting up a solar panel kills more polar bears than not putting up a solar panel, because the manufacturers of solar panels use thousand of tons of coal per square inch of solar panel, I’ve got to consider not doing it. Except for reason three.

Reason Three: If we all refuse to act until everyone else acts than we will not act. I will buy whatever solar panel I want, and the people who make solar panels can compete for my business by getting the energy to make their solar panels from … solar panels! Or not. Eventually they will because we ALL have to stop using ALL of the Carbon. Driving an electric car in a region where more coal is used to make electricity, would have to be MUCH less efficient than not driving the electric car (in terms of carbon release) to make me think twice about it. I’ll drive my electric car and at the same time we’ll watch the electricity companies make more and more of their electricity from wind and solar, and they will have a bigger market to sell that in because we are locally replacing gas with electricity. Of course, I will need the electric car to get cheaper before I can get one, but if I had one, that is what I would be thinking.

I’ve had conversations about this issue with a lot of people and these conversations have made me realize that the structural argument against clean energy is wrong for the reasons stated above. It turns out that A. Siegel has had similar arguments and he has had similar thought. It is possible that he and I have even talked about this and are pretty much on the same page. Go read To solar carport or not to carport, that is the (or at least a) question … and see what you think!

The naysayers want you to think small, but they make it look like thinking big. Instead of just calculating the immediate costs, consider also the distant polar bears crushed by the wheels of industry because you want a solar panel, they advise! But no, think even bigger. Think not only along dimensions of production and supply, but also, time and socioeconomic change. In order to address the climate crisis, we have to keep the Carbon in the ground. In order to keep the Carbon in the ground, everybody has to do everything they can do all the time, and not sit on their hands waiting for some other guy to change a value in our spreadsheet. Think big.

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19 thoughts on “Thinking Big About Clean Energy

  1. Think also of the considerable, nay, *inestimable*, value of forcing those naysayers to look at more and more residential solar installations. After a while their desire for conspicuous consumption will begin to weigh heavily against their hatred for the environment, poor darlings.

  2. The “math” in these arguments is almost always flawed (or made up out of whole cloth). Obviously is PV panels save you money, they must have taken less energy to manufacture than they are gonna give you. EVs are also more efficient users of primary energy than oil based fueled cars. The only environmental argument I can make against EVs is that they enable someone else to use the oil you saved -i.e. maybe you saved a lot less (or none), because
    maybe what determines how much oil is burned is how much we can pump out of the ground???

    In any case, some EVs are quite affordable, the Leaf is something like $26K before tax benefits of $7500-$10000. So, if your use profile matches the car (mainly can you live with the range limitations and can charge at home), it should save you money versus a gasoline powered vehicle.

  3. Here is a link to an article that gives the breakeven time on solar panels (between 1.5 and 2.5 years)
    Since the life of the panels is typically at least 20 years, and assuming a 2 year energy breakeven time that says a solar cell will save 10 times the emissions that it took to make it.
    As to EV.s the comparison between gasoline and the EV depends on how the electric is made, if from renewables yes. But a typical gasoline car runs in the 30% efficiency range, so that a combined cycle gas plant at 60% natural gas energy to electricity rate even when combined with 5-10% grid losses, comes out ahead. An old non supercritical coal plant looses here.

  4. Lyle, ICE engines only get close to the rated efficiency under high loads. They don’t have regenerative braking either. And a lot of energy was lost refining the oil. Even coal powered EVs win out.

  5. The septics tend to focus on some of the chemicals that have been used to produce solar panels, and whose GHG potency is far worse than CO2. They then conclude that this alone gives an accurate assessment of emissions from solar. They choose to ignore the small amount of these chemicals used, and that the production of electricity from solar panels doesn’t result in GHG emissions, so that the total life cycle emissions from solar are significantly lower than those from fossil fuels. It’s interesting, though, that they find GHG emissions relevant when they can be used to undermine renewable technologies.

    With wind, they focus on debunked health effects, esthetic evaluations, and some antiquated, poorly sited wind farms that killed a disturbing number of birds. The bird argument is now also used to tarnish CSP specifically and solar in general.

    All this underlines that the septics main interest is to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. As they can’t argue directly for that, the strategy is to delegitimize renewables and leave fossil fuels (and nuclear) as the only viable alternative.

  6. Re EVs, the grid can get cleaner, but your individual car cannot. So if you buy a gas auto, you are stuck with its emissions until you sell it (and we’re all stuck with them until it’s junked). Also, thanks to Lyle in #3 for pointing out that info on energy payback (of at least wind and solar) has been studied a lot and is well documented. The folks who are so worried about the polar bears in re solar are probably remarkably unconcerned about those same bears and the impacts of our existing energy system.

  7. In some places, the proportion of the power on your grid that is being produced by wind or solar is due to hit 20% or even 40% very soon.
    South Australia, for example, is now about 30%, and power prices are starting to fall sharply as a result.

    So the power you use this year may be dirtier than the power your obtain from the same source next year.

  8. Also, you can in some places specifically buy power produced by wind. So even though Minnesota has a lot of coal, so electric cars are probably just barely a positive step right now, if you buy wind power then, well, there you go.

    Or you could have your own windmill!

  9. “In some places, the proportion of the power on your grid that is being produced by wind or solar is due to hit 20% or even 40% very soon.”

    In the first 6 months of 2014 we got 41.2% of our electricity from wind. In January, 61.7%.

    The Danish Energy Agency found that onshore wind was the cheapest way to add electricity generation.

    Evidently, at least for now, conditions in Minnesota are similar:

    “Cheap steel and more efficient turbines have made wind the low-cost power source here…
    ‘We’re adding 750 megawatts of wind in the next couple of years, and we’re getting that for a price that’s below the competing alternatives,’ said Frank Prager, the vice president for environmental policy at Xcel Energy.
    Bill Grant, the deputy commissioner of Minnesota’s Commerce Department, said he believed that the federal tax credit for wind-energy projects was increasingly irrelevant. ‘My hunch is, given prices right now, we’d be building wind with or without the subsidy,’ he said.”

    For those who may be interested, below is a list of NREL maps of U.S. wind, solar, and geothermal resources.

  10. “Or you could have your own windmill!”

    While rooftop solar can make sense, rooftop wind does not. In the case of both wind and solar, utility-scale solutions often make more sense than doing it yourself. The best wind resources are located at higher altitudes, and in Denmark the taller turbines with longer blades that have been installed since 2008 produce 50% more energy than their predecessors.

    While technologies for solar are still evolving,

    (One new example: )

    alternatives to the standard three bladed horizontal axis wind turbine (HAWT) have not led anywhere. Rooftop wind doesn’t produce enough energy to justify the cost and can, in fact, destroy the roof it’s mounted on. Vertical-axis-wind-turbines (VAWTs) don’t produce enough energy and are subject to stresses that can cause them to break down. They have never proved themselves to be commercially viable. popular/
    zmaz08fmzmcc.aspx id=398&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=137&cHash=bce4d8017b9a204d47f82fec725f72d7 id=399&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=2535&cHash=05835e46d90b73bb0b734dee3800a9b6
    In my opinion, putting up one’s own wind turbine would only make sense under off grid conditions in which (rooftop) solar wasn’t an option. Also, it would only make sense if the available wind resource was good, and if the turbine could be raised so much above surrounding trees and structures, that it could avoid turbulence and have access to stable wind resources.

  11. Greg, that’s true (#9). Even here in coal-addicted Kentucky, which lags well behind the nation in both efficiency and renewables, I can buy renewable energy for a $15/month premium. I do it mostly because when I promote renewable energy, I don’t have to deal with the “put up or shut up” argument.

  12. Just coming up to the 3-year anniversary of our panels. 8MWh so far..

    One thing I’d like to see available is a partial-off-grid solution. This would be something like a 1kW max, 4kWh system that could run all the lighting and low power devices for a house (In our house, everything outside the kitchen). It would charge between 8am and 4pm, using solar power, and power the house the rest of the time. This would be great for power cuts, and also mean you took less from the grid overall.

  13. Andrew Dodds @13… I can’t find any specific links at the moment but one of the things I remember reading recently was saying that, once EV batteries become unusable for a car, they still have potential for use for exactly what you’re describing. You install them in your home somewhere, charge them during the day and run you home during peak demand hours. It might not get you 100% off grid, but you’d certainly be closer.

    EV’s are so new at this point, we’re some years out from seeing this happen. We’re still probably 5+ years out from seeing the first Leaf batteries that need replacement.

    1. Huh, nice to know. We have a Mitsubishi EV that is about 1.5 years old. No issues so far. Seems to get about the same mileage w/ charge. We did do deep discharge twice so far, as recommended by mfr. With trade-in, cost of car was $12k, financed at 0%.

  14. I really like the idea of putting a solar power in the car park. Solar power systems derive clean, pure energy from the sun. When you install solar panels on your home, you help to combat greenhouse gas emissions and global warming and reduce our collective dependence on fossil fuel. Thank you for sharing this. I hope many people will inspire in this post.

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