Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mikulina: Solar power sensible, disruptive

What's the role for residential solar power—photovoltaics or PV—in Hawai'i?

Substantial, writes Sierra Club Hawai'i chief Jeff Mikulina, on the Microsoft Environment website.

(Photo: Some of the cells on elderly photovoltaic panel. For Mikulina's article, see www.microsoft.com/environment/perspectives/articles/sierra_club_hawaii.aspx)

There remain some problems. It's still not cheap. And it's intermittent—it only makes power when the sun shines.

But you might be even more put off if today someone suggested this as a new technology: You could put in a fossil fuel generator and that it would require you hauling toxic, explosive gasoline to it several times monthly.

Viewed together, you might be less dismayed by a technology that only required batteries or a link to the power grid.

Indeed, Mikulina cites the ready “local” availability of solar power as a key benefit.

“An average household in Hawaii can decrease their carbon emissions by about seven tons annually when compared with conventional fossil fuel grid. Power from PV is generated locally, so PV users are no longer tethered to oil wells located thousands of miles away,” he writes.

In fact, the sun is dumping all that power on your rooftop right now, and it's going to waste.

“With hundreds of thousands of empty rooftops facing the sun in Hawaii, distributed PV is perfectly positioned to be game-changing technology that overturns the current model of producing electricity,” he writes.

Some folks are converting to solar now, either storing the energy in their own battery banks or hooking up to the grid through a net metering system. Net metering is where you supply power to the grid when you're producing more energy than you use, and then pull power off the grid when (in the case of solar) the sun isn't shining.

To most efficiently use a system in which many residents both produce and consume power, the grid itself needs an upgrade—so it is smart enough to sense what's going on, to send and receive messages from its customers, to better manage its ebb and flow of energy.

“Electric utilities would transform their business model from power producing to power distributing, much like the telecommunication sector. This distributed model of community-scaled power generation and storage would also fulfill Thomas Edison’s original vision for electricity—in the 1880s he forecast a power plant in every community,” Mikulina writes.

Mikulina has long been a proponent of solar power. In fact, he wrote his master's degree thesis on the subject last year.

He surveyed Hawai'i residents about their views on solar power.

Among the other key indicators of potential solar adopters: pro-environmental views, participation in environmental activities, a desire for self-sufficiency, and holding the belief that electricity costs are going to keep going up.

Writes Mikulina in his thesis: “Clearly, there are many ways to foster interest in (grid-tied photovoltaic) adoption. But the strongest drivers appear to be perceived economic relative advantage and the belief that (grid-tied photovoltaic) is effective in satisfying environmental concern.”

In his thesis, he argues that residential photovoltaic systems, hooked up to the community electricity grid, is a key component of Hawai'i's energy future.

“Grid-tied residential photovoltaic's minimal environmental impact, rapidly decreasing cost, and renewable fuel source may position it as the disruptive energy technology of the 21st century,” Mikulina writes.

“With its high electricity prices, near-complete dependence on imported oil for energy, and abundant sunlight, Hawai'i is poised to be a leader in adopting this ancient source of power, hastening the day when 'alternative energy' is simply 'energy.'”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate