Kung Fu Hustle


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Solar for Dummies Part 1: Why Solar?

Today, I thought it might be a good idea to share my understanding of the solar industry with you.  I know many of you have been following solar for years and think you have all the answers, but let's just look over what I try to get across to people on a daily basis:

Why Solar?

Looking over the various forms of energy, each has its own problems.  

  • Oil produces spills that are incredibly hard to clean up, produces CO2 emissions which might make the world uninhabitable for humans, and is a non-renewable resource.  
  • Coal is dangerous to dig, produces CO2 emissions which might make the world uninhabitable for humans, and is a non-renewable resource.
  • Fission plants, currently the only form radiation being used to generate electricity, are incredibly dangerous and produce radioactive waste that remains dangerous for a long time.
  • Hydroelectric requires a constant flow of water.  Pollution in the water can damage a hydro-electric plant.
  • Wind turbines cause a continuous whine, usually among those who find them unattractive.
  • Solar only works during the day and is less effective on cloudy days.
So many people think CO2 emissions can't be a big deal.  After all there is so much air on this planet how could we ever produce enough CO2 to be harmful?  Well, movies have really done a crappy job of helping people understand how easily you can be killed by lack of oxygen.  Air pressure in a room always has to fall to zero before someone dies in a movie.  In real life, it is much easier to die.  CO2 levels at 1% can make people drowsy.  If you black out and fall to the floor, there is likely to be a higher concentration of CO2 there since CO2 is heavier than air.  If you do black out and fall into a higher concentration of CO2, then how do you get yourself out?  If the concentration reaches 3%, then you start breathing faster because your body is trying to get rid of the CO2, which binds with your hemoglobin and prevents your body from getting oxygen.  Carbon Monoxide (CO) binds more readily and can kill you faster than CO2, but CO2 will do the job given the conditions we are creating.

CO2 is harder to get out of the environment as well   CO2 will cause plants to grow faster and larger, which might help decrease CO2 levels, but we are producing CO2 faster than plants can remove it.  Additionally, CO2 will cause the atmosphere to hold more heat (causing climate change).  It is believed that this was what happened to Venus to make the atmosphere so hot.  Our ability to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere is not reflective of the actual numbers.  We can tell there amounts are increasing, but even if we stopped introducing CO2 into the atmosphere today, it is like applying brakes on a train going downhill.  You would still see increases in speed until the brakes catch and begin to slow down the train.  Well that is what is happening with CO2, we need to stop the acceleration of CO2 into the atmosphere and then reduce it to a manageable level.  That is why burning hydrocarbons; oil, coal, natural gas or even biofuels are all harmful to the environment.  

Radioactive waste, even dumped into what might seems a lifeless desert, will kill off a variety of lifeforms, some of which are essential to our ecosystem.  And radiation takes an incredibly long time to wear out.  Fukushima shows the potential for damage and we cannot do anything to stop the damage occurring there.

So that leaves wind, hydroelectric and solar.  Of those, everyone gets wind and sun. Given that the Caribbean has about 4,500 pumping platforms for oil companies, I don't see why we could not get them to put 10 MW turbines on each platform.  But that is out of the reach of the common person.  What is available is solar panels on top of a home.  Each person could have a 2.5kW - 9kW array on their homes, offsetting their electric bill and reducing production needs with the utility companies.  Some portions of the country would do better with wind, but the sunbelt, especially Southern California would do well with solar.  Why Southern California?  San Diego Gas and Electric has the highest utility prices in the continental U.S., with only Hawaii being higher.

Using renewables has the effect of also reducing our need as a country for both foreign oil from OPEC countries and support from China allowing us to purchase said oil.  Considering how many of our military actions in the last 40 years have been focused on securing oil for our use, we could ease international tensions as well.

This is only part one, I will continue with Part 2: What Options Are Available With Solar