Going Green

Environmental issues, energy and electric cars

Are Solar Panels a wasteful way to go green?

Last week I wrote about what I consider the main goal of green electricity efforts, namely to stop burning coal. You can do that, to some extent, by removing demand from the grid in places where the grid is coal-heavy. Even in other places, removing demand from the grid will be fairly effective at reducing the production of greenhouse gases.

Update: Since this article a flood of cheap solar panels from China has been changing some of the economics discussed here. I have not altered the article but some of its conclusions deserve adjustment.

No matter what you do -- conserve, or put up solar or wind -- your goal is to take power off the grid. Many people however, consciously or unconsciously take a different goal -- they want to feel that they are doing the green thing. They want their electricity to be clean. This is actually a dangerous idea, I believe. Electrons are electrons. In terms of reducing emissions, you get the exact same result if you put a solar panel on your house than if you put it on your neighbour's house. You even get a better result if you put it on a house that's powered by a coal plant, so long as you also reap the benefit (in dollars) of the electricity it makes.

People don't like to accept this, but it's much better to put a wind turbine somewhere windy than on your own house. Much better to put a solar panel somewhere sunny than on your own house. And much better in all cases if the power you offset is generated by more by coal than at your house.

However, the real consequences are much deeper. The following numbers reveal it is generally a bad idea to put up solar panels at all, at least right now. That's because, as you will see below, solar panels are a terrible way to spend money and time to make greener electricity. Absolutely dreadful. Their only attribute is making you feel good because they are on your roof. But you should not feel good, because you could (in theory, and I believe with not much work in practice) have made the planet much greener by using the money you spent on the panels in other ways.

The true goal is to find the method that provides the most bang per buck in removing load from the dirty grid.

Keep reading to see the math and a spreadsheet with some very surprising numbers about what techniques do that the best.

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Stop burning coal

There are many ways to go green, though as I have identified, the vast bulk of the problem is in just a few areas -- personal transportation, electrical generation, building design/heating/cooling and agriculture.

While those who focus on CO2 work from the fact that both Natural Gas and Coal, which produce 70% of the USA's electricity, emit CO2, coal is a much bigger villain.

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The paradox of cheapening solar power

We need renewable energy, such as solar power. Because of that, companies are working hard on making it cheaper. They can do this either by developing new, cheaper to manufacture technologies, cheaper ways of installing or by simply getting economies of scale as demand and production increase. They haven't managed to follow Moore's law, though some new-technology developers predict they someday will.

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Pickens Plan -- switch cars to NG, electricity to wind

Last weekend I attended a small gathering in the Grand Tetons where Boone Pickens came to promote his new energy plan. The billionaire oilman is spending $56M of his own money per year on ads for this plan, and you will see them if you watch ads. Otherwise they are at his Pickens Plan web site.

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Is Green U.S. Transit a whopping myth?

As part of my research into robotic cars, I've been studying the energy efficiency of transit. What I found shocked me, because it turns out that in the USA, our transit systems aren't green at all. Several of the modes, such as buses, as well as the light rail and subway systems of most towns, consume more energy per passenger-mile than cars do, when averaged out. The better cities and the better modes do beat the cars, but only by a little bit. And new generation efficient cars beat the transit almost every time, and electric scooters beat everything hands down.

Moral choice on nuclear vs. coal

A subject of debate in environmental circles revolves around whether the successful 70s opposition to nuclear power was a wise idea. At the time, it was never thought of as a choice between nuclear and coal, it was thought of simply as fear of the dangers of nuclear. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a push for coal, which of course kills far more people and emits more radiation than U.S. nuclear plants ever have.

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Corn is destroying America, and Brazil

It was good to see a major newsmagazine like Time do its cover story on the corn ethanol scam this week. I've been worried about corn as a source of biofuel for some time. So far, it makes no sense, and is only used because of the power of the corn lobby and senators from agricultural states. I've read various arguments (all with political agendas) about just how much petrofuel is burned in order to make corn based ethanol.

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Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!

Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it's telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn't read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.

Make gasoline $6/gallon, give everybody $2,000

Burning gasoline is ruining the world. It accounts for 40% of greenhouse emissions, and a large percentage of other nasty emissions including the particulate matter that kills millions each year. Getting it has driven the world to wars. When you burn it, you pollute my air, hurting me, and you owe me something for it, which is a reason that gasoline taxes make sense even in a libertarian context.

The end of public transit

I've been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there's a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don't, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don't consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.

Hard work for Burning Man to be Green

This year's theme for Burning Man is "the Green Man." It represents a lot of things. For many it just is an inspiration for art centered on nature or the environment. Others are taking it as a signal to try to be better environmentally. That's going to be a very tough road for a festival centered on building a temporary city far from everything and pyrotechnic art.

A solar economics spreadsheet

In light of my recent threads on CitizenRe I built a spreadsheet to do solar energy economic calculations. If you click on that, you can download the spreadsheet to try for yourself. If you don't have a spreadsheet program (I recommend the free Gnumeric or Open Office) it's also up as a Google Solar Spreadsheet but you may need a Google account to plug in your own numbers.

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CitizenRe, real or imagined -- a challenge

Recently I opened up a surprising can of worms with a blog post about CitizenRe wondering if they had finally solved the problem of making solar power compete with the electrical grid. At that post you will see a substantial comment thread, including contributions by executives of the firm, which I welcome. At first, I had known little about CitizenRe and the reputation it was building. I thought i should summarize some of the issues I have been considering and other elements I have learned.

CitizenRe's offer is very appealing. They claim they will build a plant that can make vastly cheaper solar. Once they do, they will install it on your roof and "rent" it to you. You buy all the power it produces from them at a rate that beats your current grid power cost. Your risks are few -- you put down a deposit of $500 to $1500 depending on system size, you must cover any damage to the panels, and they offer removal and replacement for a very modest fee if you need to reroof or even move. You lock in your rate, which is good if grid rates go up and bad if grid rates go down or other solar becomes cheaper, but on the whole it's a balanced offer.

In fact, it seems too good to be true. It's way, way cheaper than any offering available today. Because it sounds so good, many people are saying "show me." I want to see just how they are going to pull that off. Many in the existing solar industry are saying that much louder. They are worried that if CitizenRe fails to deliver, all their customers will have been diverted to a pipedream while they suffer financial ruin. Of course, they are also worried that if CitizenRe does deliver, they will be competed out of business, so they do have a conflict of interest.

Here are some of the things to make me skeptical.

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Hybrid stickers in carpool lane should be sold at dutch auction.

In the SF Bay Area, there are carpool lanes. Drivers of fuel efficient vehicles, which mostly means the Prius and the Honda Civic/Insight Hybrids can apply for a special permit allowing them to drive solo in the carpool lanes. This requires both a slightly ugly yellow sticker on the bumper, and a special transponder for bridges, because the cars are allowed to use the carpool lane on the bridge but don't get the toll exemption that real carpools get.

Math getting better? -- CitizenRe

(Note: I have posted a followup article on CitizenRe as a result of this thread. Also a solar economics spreadsheet.)

I've been writing about the economics of green energy and solar PV, and have been pointed to a very interesting company named CitizenRe. Their offering suggests a major cost reduction to make solar workable.

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Another war tragedy -- the solar opportunity in Iraq

While I've written before about the trouble in making solar competitive with grid power, this is not true when the grid is being blown up by geurilla fighters on a regular basis. Over the past couple of years, Bechtel has been paid over 2 billion dollars, mostly to try to rebuild the Iraq electrical infrastructure. Perhaps it's not their fault that power is only on in Bagdadh for 2 hours a day after these billions have been spent -- but their might have been a better way.

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Stop the bad math on alternative energy

I think it's important that we stop burning petrofuels or indeed any fuels and get energy from better sources.

But there's a disturbing phenomenon I have seen from people who believe the same thing too much. They want to believe so much, they forget their math. (Or I may be being charitable. Some of them, trying too hard to sell an idea or a product, may be deliberately forgetting their math.)

I see this over and over again in articles about photovoltaic solar, wind and other forms of power. They suggest you could put in a PV panel array for $20,000, have it provide you with $1,000 worth of electicity per year and thus "pay for itself" in 20 years. Again and again I see people take a series of payments that happen over a long time and just divide the total by the monthly or annual amount.

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I've been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are -- about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don't justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there's an argument that you're hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it's not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on...

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