Going Solar: is it the best thing for me right now?

Not necessarily.

A solar photo-voltaic system is a big non-portable investment with a multi-year payback time, and it is not equally suitable for all homes or parts of the country. It is not usually a possibility if you’re renting, either, although you could talk to your landlord about it if you know him/her well enough. And it may not be the cheapest way of reducing your electricity bill, if that is important to you.

As you can see from the chart …

  • If you have a standard electric hot water system, it is responsible for a large part of your electricity bill. Replacing it with a solar HWS or one of the new ‘heat pump’ systems may give you more bang for the buck than a PV array, especially since they will attract a federal government subsidy.
  • The second big energy gobbler (it may use more than water heating, depending on where you live) is heating and cooling, and small changes in thermostat settings can make big changes in power bills. For every 1 degree you increase your air-con thermostat by, you can save around 10% on running costs, so setting your it at 25C instead of 20C and spending the savings on caviar and French champagne is a distinct possibility.
  • The same thing, in reverse, applies to central heating if you have it.
  • If you have a swimming pool you should make sure it’s on an off-peak tariff. A high-efficiency pump would be a good idea too. (Ergon is currently encouraging those changes with cash offers.)
  • If you routinely use a clothes dryer instead of an outdoor clothes-line, change  now and save lots of dollars and CO2.
  • After that, look at the little energy-wasters – the appliances left on standby, the lights left on when they don’t need to be, and so on.

There’s plenty of advice here (Victorian government), here (which is where I found the graphic above; it’s a commercial site but their information is good) and here (CSIRO); or you could go for a home energy audit, e.g. climatesmart.

Finally, remember that all of these ideas are 100% compatible with going solar some time in the future. Or now, if that’s possible.

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.

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.

Going Solar: David

There has been a lot of talk about domestic solar power systems in the last year or so but most of it seems to be coming from governments, suppliers and others who may have vested interests, so it’s understandable that we listen to it with a degree of scepticism.

I thought a real-life example or two may help to sort out the truth from the hype.   Sometime soon I’ll post my own story, of the installation on our own older high-set house in Mundingburra. Meanwhile, here are the experiences of David and Kate, a young professional couple living in a small modern house in the new suburb of Douglas. In David’s words (and with my thanks to him for allowing me to quote him):

Our 1.52 kW solar power system was installed by a specialist PV company in March 2011 and the entire process has been extremely smooth. The installation was performed amazingly quickly, with about six staff working together to place the panels on the roof, provide conduit from the panels to the solar inverter through our roof, and rewire our switchboard. The whole process took only a few hours to have everything in place and signed off.

After the installation, on an average sunny day, we would see generation of at least 7 kWh, even reaching 8.5 kWh on our best day. Through this, we were seeing our power usage at home more than negated, with our meter steadily going backwards. That said, we’re not a typical situation since we only have two of us at in the house, we work 9 to 5 on weekdays, have a two-storey, north-facing house with a perfectly angled roof and no trees nearby, and are extremely power efficient around the home with LED halogen-replacement lights and gas appliances in use.

After the installation, we applied to Ergon Energy for a new electricity meter so we could get the bonus feed-in tariff. Unfortunately, this process took nearly two months of waiting – but given the recent cyclone and number of people purchasing solar panel systems, that was understandable. In late May 2011, our new meter was installed and we’ve been able to watch how much we’re saving off our power bill. Because we use so little power during typical days, most of our generated power goes into the grid at 44 cents / kWh, and we’re therefore making a fair amount of money.

As a rough indication, our new meter has been in place for just over a month, we’ve pushed around 140 kWh into the grid at 44 c/kWh and we’ve only used 108 kWh at 22 c/kWh, giving us a credit of about $38 so far. This works out at around $2 per day in credit, after paying for power usage. So, since our previous year’s power bills were approximately $700, we should be looking at a net benefit of over $1200 per year (and that’s taking into account air conditioning during summer days). Our system cost was $3300, so it’ll pay for itself in no time, not to mention the value it has added to the house.

We’ve changed our lifestyle a little with the solar as we try to do washing, dishwashing and similar powered activities when the sun isn’t shining – either early in the morning or in the evening – to avoid using our solar power and losing out on the bonus. Aside from that, we just keep being electricity conscious and turning off everything we can when it’s not in use.

We’re still waiting to receive our first power bill after the new meter was installed but our previous bill (i.e. after the panels were installed but before we started getting the feed-in bonus) saw our power bill halved just by having the solar panels installed for a third of the billing period.

Kate and I are very thorough with planning so we made sure we knew what we were getting, and we made sure to have the panels in the right place, etc, etc. Aside from the slow Ergon hook-up, we’ve had no problems at all. Anything we didn’t expect? We didn’t really expect we would be saving so much!

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.