World Solar Challenge

This is the first time Green Path has covered a sporting event (and may be the last) but it is a pretty special event: the World Solar Challenge is a cross-continental road race for solar powered cars.

2009 winner, Tokai Challenger
The 2009 winner, Tokai Challenger

The official site announced that, “The field for this year’s World Solar Challenge 2011 Darwin to Adelaide is the largest yet. On Sunday October 16, 42 teams from 21 countries will take to the starting line, among them three teams from Australia, to do battle for line honours 3,000 kilometres away, in Adelaide.”

Good ol’ Wikipedia is better on the history than the official site:

The race attracts teams from around the world, most of which are fielded by universities or corporations although some are fielded by high schools. The race has a 20-year history spanning nine races, with the inaugural event taking place in 1987. The objective of this competition is to promote research on solar-powered cars. Teams from universities and enterprises participate. In 2005, 22 teams from 11 countries entered the primary race category. …

By 2005, several teams were handicapped by the South Australian speed limit of 110 km/h (68 mph), as well as the difficulties of support crews keeping up with 130 km/h (81 mph) race vehicles. It was generally agreed that the challenge of building a solar vehicle capable of crossing Australia at vehicular speeds had been met and exceeded. A new challenge was set: to build a new generation of solar car, which, with little modification, could be the basis for a practical proposition for sustainable transport.

That change of emphasis, with its accompanying rule changes, has effectively capped the average speed of the winners at about 100 kph, even as the technology keeps improving.

The latest news on this year’s race as I write after lunch on the 18th, is that they are half way, about to reach Alice Springs, and making good time – hitting speeds of 130 kph, in fact – after delays caused by road trains and bushfires.

Thursday 20 October: We have a result – the Japanese team won, defeating the Dutch by a very small margin. Read more at ABC News.

Going Solar: Malcolm

As I said at the end of June, I think real-life examples may help to sort out the truth about domestic solar power from the hype. Here is the second of two recent Townsville installation stories. My own solar installation was not as straightforward as David’s but that may make it more useful for some readers. 

We have lived in an older high-set weatherboard house (about 1950, a product of the post-war building boom) for nearly twenty years. When we decided to install a photo-voltaic (PV) system, we had to deal with a main switchboard as old as the house, mature trees surrounding and shading the house, and the need to work around our existing solar hot water system.

Malcolm's house from the South-East
Mature trees: The house from the South-east, with Poincianas on the footpath in front of an even taller Poplar Gum just inside our fence and an under-storey of Frangipanis (leafless in winter). The Macadamia and Paperbark (the tallest tree on the left of the picture) on our southern fence and the Mango in the the back corner of the block are not so visible but should not be forgotten.

Every PV system installer who quoted for us told us that we would have to replace our switchboard. We were neither surprised nor particularly disappointed but it did encourage us to choose a company which has always done general electrical work and has recently added solar installations to its business, rather than a PV-only company, since we figured we could be sure the switchboard and solar system would be done together and work together. Since we were upgrading the switchboard anyway, we switched our solar HWS booster and the pool pump to tariff 33 (off-peak) to save ourselves quite a bit off our electricity bill quite apart from our solar savings (and yes, I know we probably should have done it years ago). The cost for all that work was $2000.

We opted for a 1.5 kW panel array, the usual entry-level configuration, but a 3 kW inverter so that we could add panels later without needing to upgrade anything else. The cost for the system was $3500 – not quite the cheapest quote, but all three were within a couple of hundred dollars of each other (and of David’s cost). The house faces East so our North-facing roof is relatively small to start with and (reasonably enough) our solar HWS panels and tank were right in the middle of it. The PV panels therefore had to face East or West, since South is the worst possible direction. East gets the most shade, so West it was. Installers’ estimates of the reduction in output as compared to a Northern aspect were in the 7 – 10% range, nothing we couldn’t live with.

Installation, in mid May, was not as smooth as we would have liked. The switchboard was no problem at all but the solar team were in the middle of the rush to get systems in before the federal government rebate dropped and made a couple of significant mistakes, installing the wrong inverter and installing the panels too low on the roof. To their credit, they fixed them willingly enough, but it took a while.

The percentage of generated power which we didn’t need should have been feeding into the grid and earning us money right from the day of installation, but Ergon also were swamped by the rush of people installing systems before the incentives dropped. An essential piece of paper went astray, and after it was found there was still a backlog of installation work, so that in the end there was a delay of exactly three months between installation and hook-up. It was irritating and disappointing but it doesn’t matter much in the long run: we can have lost no more than $100, which is negligible over even the first five years.

Our latest quarterly account (May – July) has been affected by far too many changes to give us a clear indication of the benefits of the PV system but we do know we have saved about $50 by putting the pool pump on the off-peak tariff. (We haven’t even used the HWS booster so there are no savings yet from that change – hot water can’t be any cheaper than free! – but we will get the benefit during the Wet season.)

Since the system was properly completed we have been getting a daily output of almost exactly 6 kWh. Taking seasonal factors (see my first comment to David’s story) into account, that happens to be roughly what we expect our long-term average to be. If it all went in to the grid at 44c / kWh it would earn us $2.60 per day; if we used all of it, it would save us $1.25 per day by replacing Tariff 11 power at 20.7c / kWh. Our net benefit is therefore somewhere around $2 per day, or $180 per quarter.

All in all, making the best guesses I can for the unknowns, pay-back time for the whole project (PV system and switchboard) looks like being in the 5 – 8 year range. That’s perfectly acceptable in itself and, like David, we are pleased with the value it has added to the house. Of course, if the electricity tariff rises (hands up everyone who thinks it is going to fall? No, my hand didn’t go up either), pay-back time will drop accordingly.

(A slightly different version of this post was published in Reef HQ Volunteers Association newsletter, Waves, for September 2011.)

Going solar: Ravenswood and elsewhere

My wife has recently returned from a holiday in Europe (Germany, France, and northern Italy) and says that solar panels are all over the place there. She found the sight of centuries-old farm sheds with panels gleaming on their roofs quite amusing, and also noted that people were ‘not just putting up a few panels, as we do, but covering the whole roof.’ All good to hear.

While she was over there, I visited Ravenswood, which is quite a contrast. They do have solar power in common, though. Here’s a house in town, an older place (note the single-skin weatherboard construction) in a well kept garden:

House in Ravenswood with solar panels on roof
Old and new: the house is probably a century old.

Meanwhile, back here in Townsville, I’m still waiting on our first electricity bill since installation of our own system. When I get that, I will write up our experiences as a companion piece to David’s story.

Responses to the Carbon Tax

It’s a long time since a political issue raised tempers as much as the Labor government’s new Carbon Tax and opinions about it one day after the announcement span a very broad range.

The Australia Institute summed up the policy pretty much the way I would: “The good news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday will neither impoverish Australians nor bankrupt our economy. The bad news is that the modest carbon price announced yesterday won’t save the planet either.” (Read the rest of it here.)

The Greens, predictably but forgivably, characterised it as a major victory in a campaign which they have been waging for as long as they have existed: “The Australian Greens, the Labor government and the Independent MPs today announced an historic agreement on a climate action package that will put a $23 per tonne price on carbon pollution, as was first proposed by the Greens, support householders and invest billions of dollars in clean, renewable energy. … While a climate action package designed by the Greens would have been more ambitious straight away, what we have achieved is a firm foundation for the future.” (More here.)

Get-up were happy but determined not to let it slip away: “As late as a few weeks ago a credible outcome was still uncertain. Thankfully, this plan has come along way! While it isn’t perfect, there’s a lot in this package that we can all be proud of … Right wing politicians and polluter lobbyists are in a frenzy. They’re desperate to scare the public in order to break the fledgling agreement in Canberra for a clean energy future. Millions of Australians will make up their mind in these first 48 hours. Our challenge is to counter the distortions from conservative media and the big polluters before they hijack the debate.” (I got that because I’m on their mailing list. Their site is here.)

On the Big Business side, “The owner of the Hazelwood power station, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, has described the Government’s carbon tax plan as very disturbing.” (ABC News) – no surprise whatever – and “Most industry groups have responded negatively to yesterday’s carbon price revelations, saying the scheme is unfair and will cost jobs.” (ABC News again, and no surprise again.)

But some are more positive:

“While most of the major business lobby groups have come out in opposition to the Government’s carbon tax, other large firms say the long-term positives outweigh the short-term costs.

“Construction giant Grocon is one of the members of Businesses for a Clean Economy, a group of around 200 companies which are in favour of a carbon price. Grocon’s David Waldren says the carbon pricing scheme gives the construction industry greater certainty to invest in more environmentally friendly buildings. “Grocon’s very pleased to see certainty in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency,” he told ABC radio’s The World Today program. He says fears expressed by some industry associations over increased building costs represent a very short-sighted view.” (ABC News yet again.)

I don’t believe I need to tell anyone what Mr Abbott is saying, and Tony Windsor’s backhanded compliment last week suggests I’m not alone in my belief: “[Windsor] acknowledged the effectiveness of Mr Abbott’s anti-carbon price campaign. ‘Tony Abbott’s been very effective. If you’ve got only one line to say it’s not hard to remember,’ he said.” (ABC whatsit again.)

It will take weeks for the dust to settle and I’m not going to give it much space here until then, although I will certainly be watching with great interest.

Good news on renewable energy

RealClimate, my favourite way of keeping up with climate science, runs a monthly ‘open thread’ to which anyone is welcome to contribute a question or interesting bit of news. Two submissions which attracted my attention this month were about the development of renewable energy.

The first referred readers to BP’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy – still respected in spite of the company’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. Its section on renewables notes that:

  • Renewable power consumption grew by 15.5% in 2010, the fastest rate of expansion since 1990. While the share of renewable power in global energy consumption is still only 1.3% (up from 0.6% in 2000), renewable power now contributes a significant share of primary energy consumption in some individual countries. Eight nations have a renewables share of more than 5%, led by Denmark with 13.1%.
  • Solar power generating capacity grew by 73% in 2010, picking up the pace again after a brief slowdown in 2009. Total capacity grew by 16.7 GW to reach 40 GW, more than double the 2008 level. That is still only around 0.1% of total electricity generation but the rate of growth, which has averaged 39% pa over the past 10 years, suggests rapid changes in that figure.
  • Wind power generating capacity grew by 24.6% in 2010, with capacity increasing by a record 39.4 GW. The trend rate of capacity growth over the past 10 years is 27% pa, which implies a doubling of capacity every three years, and the fastest growth is occurring in China and India.

The second drew attention to a post on the highly-regarded ClimateProgress blog, ‘Ferocious Cost Reductions’ Make Solar PV Competitive. Exerpts:

There’s a joke in the solar industry about when “grid parity” – the time when solar becomes as cheap as fossil sources – will happen.

…The truth is, it will happen in phases – one market and one technology at a time. But according to two top solar executives – Tom Dinwoodie, CTO of SunPower and Dan Shugar, formerly of SunPower and current CEO of Solaria – “ferocious cost reductions,” are accelerating that crossover in a variety of markets today.

…Manufacturing costs have come down steadily, from $60 a watt in the mid-1970’s to $1.50 today. People often point to a “Moore’s Law” in solar – meaning that for every cumulative doubling of manufacturing capacity, costs fall 20%. In solar PV manufacturing, costs have fallen about 18% for every doubling of production. “It holds up very closely,” says Solaria’s Shugar.

…As SunPower’s Dinwoodie puts it: The 17 GW installed in 2010 is the equivalent of 17 nuclear power plants – manufactured, shipped and installed in one year. It can take decades just to install a nuclear plant. Think about that. I heard Bill Gates recently call solar “cute.” Well, that’s 17 GW of “cute” adding up at an astonishing pace.

…Here’s another important statistic: When SunPower built the 14-MW Nellis Air Force Base system in 2007, it cost $7 per watt. Today, commercial and utility systems are getting installed at around $3 per watt. In 2010 alone, the average installed cost of installing solar PV dropped 20%.

…So what does all this mean? It means that the notion that “solar is too expensive” doesn’t hold up anymore. When financing providers can offer a home or business owner solar electricity for less than the cost of their current services; when utilities start investing in solar themselves to reduce operating costs; and when the technology starts moving into the range of new nuclear and new coal, it’s impossible to ignore.

According to SunPower’s Tom Dinwoodie: “The cross-over has occurred.”

That is all talking about the USA, of course, but much of it applies here as well. And it is all good news.