Monday, December 31, 2007

Ring in the New Year: The Nanosolar Revolution


I've been waiting for months to hear this good news. The thin-film panels this outfit produces will eventually revolutionize the way we use solar photovoltaic power, and probably even save the planet from dangerous climate change. I'm not kidding around here. This is not hyperbole. As a renewable energy and climate change policy guy, I seriously expect to spend the next twenty years of my professional life dealing with what we might one day call the "Nanosolar Revolution."

This revolution will take some time to develop, but it seems reasonable to expect it now, at least to me and from where I sit (in the middle of the sustainability education fray!). Cheap thin film solar is a total godsend. We can easily make 40-50 percent of household and industrial electrical power with this equipment, possibly more, with computer control of production and aggregation. We can run lithium-ion, battery-electric or plug-in hybrid cars with it, and we can also heat our homes with it, even in the snowy north, thanks to the work of other leading-edge companies like Maine's very own Hallowell heat pump manufacturer.

The key to rapid deployment of this technology, however, will be in wider dissemination of solar power knowledge. In particular, we will need more knowledgeable and creative financing on the parts of banks and other sources of consumer credit and training of personnel in organization and installation, which is where Unity College comes in.

The Nanosolar Revolution will be a major jobs scheme and could even pull us out of our current economic recession. Because, despite the company's current focus on power stations in the desert, by far the best place for cheap solar is likely to be the rooftop of the house or commercial or office building, which is where we use most of the power we need. And the huge, and hugely decentralized, project of getting all that capacity installed and coordinated will bring jobs to millions of people, eventually. Putting panels on the roof of the home or business, like Jimmy Carter did at the White House all those years ago, will save on transmission costs and losses as well as on the cost of frames and other support structures. And, since most photovoltaic arrays are waterproof, you can even substitute panels for roofing material.

But there are hurdles. Your new roof-top PV system has to be seen as part of the house or business, something you buy on long-term credit, like the current roofing, which is part of the mortgage or home equity payment or business loan or stock offer or any other instrument of long term credit/investment that buys building capital. That's the first hurdle. So we need to explain this notion thoroughly to bankers, brokers, and other finance types, and we need to train the corporate managers, sustainability officers, and other professionals who will lead this process by ordering up the installations and finding out how to pay for them. This last item will not be hard to do. Solar arrays, especially if they are also roofing, will not leave the building once installed. they are a fixed asset, and so can be the subject of long-term finance. Since they can be repossessed with the building, the lender's or investor's money is better protected than with other investments.

The second hurdle is training installers, which won't be too difficult. If you were already a skilled electrical tradesman with a master electrician license, I could train you to design and install a household or business scale array in less than a week. But you'd need that week in order not to screw something up. Designing and installing a localized PV system requires some engineering thought that is currently outside the usual training and disposition for an electrician, particularly in terms of the placing, solar aspect and angle of the array itself, but also in terms of wiring for the energy produced. Most household and even industrial electricians never have to wire for a source of energy -- we only wire for sinks, such as appliances, not sources. And we rarely wire for 12, 24, or 48 volt DC, which are the usual voltages of solar arrays. Can anyone spell "inverter?" If you can, and know what one does, and can strip wire and read an engineering table, you may be in line for a new job.

A third hurdle will be the entrenched attitude of the power companies, whose financial interest is challenged by decentralized power production. Few really want to have to come to terms with the logistical problem of decentralized power production, aggregation, and transmission. They will have to do so now, of course. It's a matter of national security. The ground for this revolution was prepared by electrical industry deregulation years ago, which is why so many states and electrical regions already allow grid-tie systems, and so obviously the problems can be solved, and eventually all companies will all eventually be forced to buy power from household producers and to learn how to predict and aggregate and re-sell that power at a profit. Computers will help. New programs will need to be written and new computer models designed and tested -- more jobs. There's even a job for a weather modeler in there somewhere, too, helping power companies predict where power will be produced each day.

These three obstacles would be the main reasons why Nanosolar can and should sell all the panels they can make, for the immediate future, to power stations and other non-household users, or even to build their own power stations, as the article below describes.

But if Google's founders and other financiers of this company really wanted to save humanity from climate change, and this is absolutely within their grasp to do, they would franchise their technology to other companies so we can get these things made faster. And we'd put them on rooftops right away.

This revolution won't take too long to get going. Economists say people don't leave hundred dollar bills on the ground for very long.

I have a fifty dollar bill lying on the ground each month waiting to be picked up by Nanosolar or some derivative start-up company. This would be the banknote I send to the power company every month for my Maine-made green power purchase. Fifty dollars, at the proper long-term interest rate and 20-year payback, would finance five thousand dollars of thin-film solar photovoltaic array. At Nanosolar's stated target price of 99 cents an installed watt (did they get the 99 cent idea from Walmart?), that's 5KW per hour of power production capacity, on my roof, which in Maine (at 4.5 hours sunlight per day on average) is 22.5 KW per day, when we never use more than 600 KW per month, or 20 KW per day at this old house. My wife and I have good credit. If we could buy this equipment today, and finance it long term, and economically grid tie-it, the day it was hooked up, we would begin to save money on our power bill. No-brainer. The only question I have is whether "my" Nanosolar panels would be better installed on my house, or in the desert. The answer to that question lies in calculating the cost of transmission, including cables and pylons, the cost of support structures (I already have a 45 degree, south-facing roof Nanosolar could have for free), and the cost of transmission heat losses.

My bet is on the roof.

But there's more! The extra KW the Womerlippis would have left over from that Nanosolar PV array could easily go into charging a battery-electric or plug-in hybrid car. Bye-bye middle east oil! Eat *&%$, oil-tyrants everywhere!

We've been holding out buying that "new" secondhand car because we wanted a hybrid and couldn't quite make the numbers work for us, even with the gas savings. It was very close -- we could keep running our 28 mpg Nissan pick-up, or buy a secondhand Prius, for almost the same price, considering those gas savings. The secondhand Prius was only $30 a week more. Had a secondhand plug-in Prius been available, for say $20K, the numbers would certainly have crunched favorably because of the additional gas savings. MPKW's are ten times cheaper than MPG's.

So again, there's three or four $100 bills lying on the ground outside our garage every month for the company who can make a decent, production model, family electric or plug-in hybrid-electric car for around $20K, suitable for a Maine winter, and sell it to us so we can charge it with our current green power or, later when it becomes widely available, Nanosolar. That $400 would be the presumed total of the payment on the new car, plus the gas to run it (that we'd no longer need to buy). Today's technology, folks! A plug-in, flex-fuel Prius or similar, using Maine-made cellulosic ethanol for long trips, and Nanosolar for short daily trips, with four snow tires for winter, that'd do nicely, thank you.

So who do you think will see the light and step up to the plate? Will it be Detroit? GM and Ford execs and investors? Are their sons and daughters serving in Iraq too? Or will it be Toyota again? Hopefully, an American company will get off it's iron butt and make this vehicle. Plaster it with Nanosolar film -- it'll look just like like a Delorian!

Someone will see the light. The new 21st century economy just opened up. A Nanosolar array is the Edison light bulb, the Model T Ford, the 1981 Apple IIe, of our times, a user-friendly, easily-financed source of energy savings and better living. It's just too obvious now. Our lives are going to change dramatically, and for the better. Only a matter of time.

Yeah Nanosolar! Well done. Well done indeed.

Solar energy 'revolution' brings green power closer
Panels start solar power 'revolution'

John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian,
Saturday December 29 2007
The holy grail of renewable energy came a step closer yesterday as thousands of mass-produced wafer-thin solar cells printed on aluminium film rolled off a production line in California, heralding what British scientists called "a revolution" in generating electricity.

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