Brownouts: Is Solar Energy the Cause or the Cure?

If you don’t have a dog in the fight against climate change, you might be confused about conflicting headlines. The “Daily Caller” once claimed that solar power could fry Germany’s power grid while other publications are claiming that solar energy is the cure for brownouts.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Solar energy, like any form of new power, has some kinks to work out. And it’s worth noting that the kinks in solar energy are nowhere near as dangerous or frightening as the kinks in electricity’s early days. Ask anyone whose house blew up before alternating current was discovered. And before clean electricity became a thing we all take for granted, households that ran on coal were plagued with upper respiratory health issues.

Like early electricity, solar power is still in development, and the auxiliary technology needed to make it secure is still in development, too. In Europe, Austria, and North America, most solar technology is tied into the existing power grid. When their houses can’t run on the sun, they have electricity and natural gas as a backup. That means, when the sun hasn’t shone for a week, people with solar panels still take hot showers and have the benefits of heat, air conditioning, lights, refrigeration, and computer technology.

Unarguably, a connection to the grid makes solar power more secure. At its very best, excess solar energy can be given back to the grid to meet the needs of an ever expanding population. Many solar panel owners find themselves in the enviable position of being able to sell power back to the power company.

But the downside of tapping into the grid is that, when the grid fails, so does the solar. That’s why some towns in California find themselves in the ironic position of having no power at all on a sunny day. Solar energy cannot save them from a brownout when the demand for power exceeds the abilities of the grid or, sometimes, if a single power line succumbs to storm or fire.

Remote regions, such as rural India, which have skipped over the grid and gone straight to solar do not have this problem, but they also don’t have the security of power when the sun or their solar equipment fails.

And solar power in abundance can add to the strain on an aging power grid. Some experts predict that, in Germany, where solar power has flourished due to generous subsidies, the amount of solar power will soon outstrip the capacity of the country’s energy infrastructure.

Three things are needed to keep the dream of solar alive across the world: solar batteries, smart inverters, and improvements to the infrastructure.

Solar batteries

Batteries that can store solar energy for use at night, during a cloudy day, or during a black out, offer new hope for better energy stability across the globe. A leader in creating space-efficient, wall-mountable batteries is Tesla, led by Elon Musk, an inventor most famous for PayPal and an electric luxury car. Tesla’s Powerwall is a battery that basically acts as a backup generator—without the diesel. It can store both traditional electric and solar power for use when every other form of power fails.

The use of solar batteries should not be confined to individual homes and businesses. Smart community leaders are already looking at how centralized batteries can keep the town’s lights on—even when it’s surrounded by blackouts.

Smart Inverters

Smart inverters are an improvement to solar technology that enable grid-based solar panels to switch off their dependence on the energy infrastructure and operate independently. This is a huge step toward energy stability and solves the problem of brownouts on a sunny day. Tesla has incorporated inverters into some of its Powerwall batteries so that solar customers can bundle their energy security.

Improvements to the grid

It’s a good time to live in Germany which is now leading the world in solar energy use. Would that we all had the problem of too much solar power. However, Germany will soon have to bite the bullet and invest in improvements to its elderly power infrastructure. Without country-wide improvements, solar users could, indeed, find that a flip of the switch does not turn the lights on.

However, it is empirically unfair to blame solar energy, alone, for straining power grids. Like it or not, power grids must be upgraded from time to time to accommodate both increasing populations and the escalation of small and large appliance development which has become part of modern life. Some people couldn’t imagine life without wii sports. But in the 1950s, when much of today’s power grid was constructed, wii was not even a glimmer in an inventor’s eye.

The truth is that power grids would have to upgraded, with or without solar energy’s advent. Headlines that predict a power failure in Germany for which solar is solely to blame are wildly inaccurate.

At the same time, solar advocates need to be careful not to oversell solar energy. It has the potential to stabilize energy security in combination with other energy sources. But the technology to make it so is still partly on the drawing board.

By Lynn Hamilton

Get your solar panels now! While stockpiled supplies of Chinese panels last!

It may never be a better time to get solar panels for your home or business. Net metering has not gone away, and prescient solar installers still have reserves of low-cost Chinese solar panels.

As Trump was signing his tariffs on Chinese solar panels into law, solar installers like ICON, located outside Cincinnati, were deliberately stockpiling the cheaper, foreign panels.

ICON System Designer Jaye Meier says he wouldn’t call it “stockpiling.”

“I’d call it smart business,” Meier says.

ICON estimates that the installed cost of solar panels will rise ten percent, once tariffs affect local distributors and installers.

Despite those tariffs, the immediate future for solar is so bright, we’re hearing a term we never thought we would hear: “solar investors.” Depending on your state and the amount of sun exposure on your roof, solar panels will actually make a modest return on investment for some purchasers.

Businesses, in particular, can benefit. A tax policy called MACRS (Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System) allows businesses to depreciate the cost of solar panels directly off their income over five years. Or, if it’s beneficial, a business can take one hundred percent of the costs off its one-year income, according to John Vann, a volunteer with Solarize Indiana.

Vann, himself, is getting his first installation of thirty solar panels. According to his calculations, they will pay for themselves over the next ten years. After that, “it’s free energy,” he says.

With incentives and a discount afforded by Solarize Indiana, his array will cost only $15,000.

You might not think of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky as sunshine states, but ICON started up in 2011, serving just those three states, and business has doubled every year.

“We get more sun than Germany where half the energy is from renewable, says Meier, suggesting that going solar in the U.S. is, maybe, more about will than sunshine.

ICON’s clientele is diverse. They get their expected share of college professors wanting to do the right thing.

But, “It’s not one type of person that I’ve seen,” Meier says. “We’ve got farmers who hate the utilities, got screwed over by them once or twice.”

The Indiana legislature has not incentivized solar power. Instead the state legislature has ruled that it will phase out net metering over the next ten years. Net metering is a system which reimburses solar investors for the excess energy they create at a retail rate.

In Indiana and other states, net metering will be replaced or has already been replaced with “net billing” which reimburses the same investors at wholesale rate. Home owners who take the solar challenge count on net metering to defray the initial outlay for solar power which typically costs something like $20,000 for a full array on an average-size house.

So eliminating net metering hurts the growth of the solar industry. And Trump solar panel tariffs could hurt it some more when stockpiles of Chinese panels run dry.

So why did the use of solar power in Indiana increase twenty percent last year despite politicians at every level legislating against it?

It helps that the cost of solar panels, across the board has fallen eighty percent since 2009, Vann says. And groups like Solarize Indiana are stepping into the breach, securing deep discounts that make solar installations attractive despite disincentives.

“Long term it might be detrimental. But now it might push people into going solar before that [tariffs and loss of net metering] goes into effect,” says Meier.



Trump undermines solar power, but that hasn’t saved coal

Trump undermines solar power at the peril of us all.

By Lynn Hamilton

United States President Donald Trump has devastated the solar industry in America without bringing back coal jobs.

You may remember that Trump allied himself with coal during his run up to the presidency. And coal families gave him their unthinking votes.

This is personal for me because I live in Kentucky, and I taught for two years in eastern Kentucky. During that time, I received numerous papers from students about job loss in their families due to the failure of coal. The tone of these papers was always a mixture of victim mentality, nostalgia, and blame.

Trouble was: they didn’t always know who to blame. Former President Barack Obama figured as a convenient scapegoat because of his modest federal incentives for renewable energy. And his insistence that the coal industry moderate its damage to the environment. He gave sustainability a fighting chance, in other words.

Trump undermines solar power while coal miners die of black lung

black lung

But the real reason the coal industry is dying is the same reason whale oil went down as an industry: We’re running out of coal, just as we ran out of whales. Secondarily, both industries are far too dangerous to the front line workers, and

healthy lung

coal cannot be harvested without the same measure of cruelty as was exercised in the mass murder of whales. Just ask anyone whose community was devastated by mountain top removal. Ultimately, coal is an unsustainable

resource for energy.

We need to unmuddle some thinking here: Bashing solar has not brought back coal jobs and will not bring back coal jobs. Coal jobs have steadily declined since 2005. Trump undermines solar power at the peril of us all, because we are running out of coal without a plan B for keeping the lights on.

The national media has not come right out and said that the loss of ten thousand jobs in solar last year is the fault of Donald Trump, but to use a trope from John Oliver:

It is.

It totally is.

Solar companies, large and small, were already nervous when Trump was elected. The threat of tariffs shook the confidence of the industry until the reality of tariffs replaced it. The loss of federal incentives for energy improvements also played its part.

Let’s recap why this matters to animals, particularly wildlife. Coal burning causes carbon dioxide emissions which cause climate change. Climate change is the main reason for mass extinctions of wildlife. Climate change is the main reason that monarch butterflies are declining in numbers. Climate change, among other things, messes with migration. Birds and monarch butterflies can’t figure out when to migrate because weather patterns are so disrupted. Cool autumns whisper “Time to fly” to the hummingbird. When the fall comes with eighty degree temperatures in the Midwest, the birds get confused.

Solar energy disrupts climate change. It does not emit carbon dioxide, therefore it does not make climate change worse. When solar replaces coal, it has the potential to reverse the damaging effects of climate change which include wildlife loss.

Even if you don’t care about wildlife, you should care about solar energy and the solar industry. At least if you care about having your television and laptop turned on. We’re running out of coal without having smoothed the way for a replacement source of energy. This is what happens when you mythologize a fuel like coal instead of viewing it as something that was useful in its day.



Trump tariffs will further endanger endangered animals

Trump tariffs will further endanger species on the climate change hit list

Americans need to just accept the fact that the Chinese have gotten ahead of us on solar panel manufacture. China saw an opportunity and ran with it. Americans sat around with their thumbs up their butts, claiming that solar power would never work.

Fast forward about twenty years. Now U.S. solar manufacturers want to be protected from competition from China, where manufacturers have figured out how to deliver efficient products for cheap. China’s motives may have been entirely rooted in profit, but somehow they have become the world’s savior in the fight against climate change.

Instead of crying into our diapers, the U.S. needs to find the next cool, earth-saving technology.

That’s the message U.S. President Donald Trump should have sent to American manufacturers. Instead, he has announced that he is going to impose tariffs on Chinese panels. Tariffs have never worked, and tariffs on China are going to backfire in some huge way that we just didn’t have the imagination to anticipate.

Around this time, you might be wondering what Trump’s tariffs have to do with animals. This is how it works: Trump imposes these tariffs. Fewer people can afford solar panels. Climate change continues apace, destroying many species who simply can’t adapt fast enough to weather extremes and, in particular, changes that affect food supply.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has compiled a list of the top species that are declining rapidly because of climate change. On this list are coral reefs that are the seas’ nurseries. When the coral reefs go, the collapse of the fish industry will only be the beginning. Also on the list are Beluga whales, leatherback sea turtles, koalas, and arctic foxes.

Please sign this petition asking Trump to rescind tariffs on solar energy: