My Plan To Takeover the World is Nearly Complete

The finals panels were installed yesterday, and now my death ray solar array is complete. There are still a few things that need to be done to complete the build (like final inspections), but soon, soon I will have THE POWER! I promise to use it mostly for good. Mostly. MWHA-ha-ha-ha-ha…ahem.

Solar 008

Okay, I’m dropping back out of evil professor voice now to give a few details on the system:

The What:

    • 14 Silicon Energy SiE190 Modules
    • 1 Silicon Energy SiE3840 Inverter
    • Mounted on a ProSolar RoofTrac racking system
    • Additional Hardware: 1 Eaton 50 Amp Manual Transfer Switch (this allows me to plug in a generator to my house during power outages and isn’t a normal part of a solar install)
    • System Size: 2.66 KW

The Who:

    • Installed by Artisan Electric of Vashon, Washington (please mention my name if you contact them regarding setting up a system of your own)
    • Install took about 4 days

The Cost:

Normally I don’t like revealing issues to do with my personal finances, but here, I am breaking my rule, because cost is the one question everyone wants to know the answer to. Note that because I bought Made in Washington components, my costs lean towards the higher side of the spectrum, both because labor is slightly higher here, and because the Silicon Energy modules are of a very different construction than traditional panels being imported from outside of the US. I suggest you contact them if you are interested in hearing more about them.

    • Installation and Components for above Solar Array:  $21322
    • Installation and Components for Transfer Switch: $2185
    • IBEW Solar Rebate: –$500
    • Approximate 30% Federal Tax Credit: –$6397
    • Total Cost after Rebates: $16610
    • Approximate annual electricity use offset: 24% (percentage of electricity use in my house that will now be produced by Solar)
    • Annual savings from net reduction in electricity purchased from Puget Sound Energy: $258
    • Annual WA State production incentive: $1353 (WA State Incentive is approved only through June 30, 2020)
    • Approximate System Payoff (with no inflation on electricity rates) 8.9 years
    • Approximate System Payoff (with 6% inflation on electricity rates) 8.3 years
    • Expected lifetime of the system (to 80% generation capacity) 30 years.

The Why:

Well, this is the big one, isn’t it? Installing a system like this, even after the IBEW rebate and Federal Tax credit is still costing us a chunk of change. Yet, this is exactly why we wanted to do it: Change. Not the monetary kind. The societal kind. I wanted to plant the seed in the most visible way I could, that solar is a viable option in my area, and it is time that we all started considering it to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In May 2012, over 50% of Germany ran on Solar Power, so why can’t we?

Early adopters always pay a steep price for new technology. In the year 2000, the price of a 25”-29” LCD TV was around $4000 (not that I bought one). Now, the same size TVs, with much better resolution, were available on Black Friday of last year for well under $150. That’s a 96% price decrease in 12 years. That doesn’t just happen because technology gets better. It happens because early adopters go in and start buying the $4000 TVs, and companies see that there is money to be made in that market, and then start to increase production, driving down unit costs and making more money on volume. As the products become commoditized, companies begin to differentiate their products by making better ones for which they can demand higher prices, which drives the whole cycle around again.

The good news in this cycle is that I expect that 10-12 years from now, solar panels to be much cheaper, and much more efficient. In the future, the components will be far cheaper than the labor to install it. But the initial demand has to be there now to encourage manufacturers to do the research and build out the infrastructure to produce the components. You’ll notice that the subsidies I listed above greatly reduced the cost of the system for me. And yes, they are subsidies. Opponents of government spending with decry this as a waste of taxpayer money. But if you read the article on Germany’s conversion to solar power, you’ll see that subsidies to the solar industry are still a tiny fraction of what goes to the Oil and Natural Gas industries, and that doesn’t include the 3 trillion dollars the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost the US Taxpayer, which we all know was more about oil and revenge than about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

I bought my components from a Washington State based manufacturer. I hired a Washington State based company, with Washington State based employees, who were trained by schools here in Washington State. The money I spent will have a multiplier effect in the local economy before we even consider the 25% reduction in electricity needs for my home. That’s good for me because the majority of the work I do as a software developer is for Washington State based businesses as well.

But that 25% savings on my electric bill is not negligible. If everyone who owns a home or business with a good southern exposure in the US installed a system like this, we could drop the US daytime power usage sent over power lines by 25% or more. See, distributing power from central sources results in about a 7% loss. So generating 25% on-site, actually results in closer to a 26.75% decrease in the production need during daylight hours. Currently, 45.5% of US electricity generation is done via coal, which, even if you call it Clean Coal, is still the dirtiest power generation method used today. Reducing our coal use by over 50% would be a tremendous improvement over today’s situation.

But we can go further. I left enough room on the roof of my garage to install a 3rd row of panels in a few years when I have the cash. That would bump me up to 40% of my electricity consumption, assuming the efficiency of the panels does not increase over time. But they will increase over time. The last number I saw for the record for PV efficiency (how much light energy from the sun can be converted to electrical energy) is 42%. The maximum theoretical limit is 86%. My current panels are rated at 190 watts / 16 Square Feet or  11.875 Watts/SqFt. I couldn’t find the efficiency rating for them, but lets assume it’s close to the current world-wide record (which is probably pretty optimistic). If we could double that in ten years to even 22 W/SqFt, each one of these panels would bring in 350 W, and, in all likelihood be 10% the cost. So in 10 years, a system like mine would generate almost 50% of my electricity, and cost well south of $10000 to install. Most of that cost would be labor, which cannot be done overseas. The subsidies could be greatly reduced, and it would be a lot more affordable for the average homeowner. And at 50% of electricity generation, there would be no need for coal fired power plants in the US at all any longer.

But lets say we didn’t want to wait 10 years to get rid of coal. We wanted to do it in 3 years. We could do that too, and boost the US economy. The Iraq / Afghan wars cost each person in the US over $6300. Those aren’t costs we will ever recover. But if we were to invest a fraction of that amount into solar by increasing the tax credits to home owners and businesses to fully cover the cost of solar panels (manufactured in the US) to allow each home / business to produce as much electricity as it consumes. We could pay for this by completely removing all subsidies from the Oil and Gas and Military industries. We could completely wipe out the need for massive power plants to run during the daylight, and eliminate the power lines that crisscross the countryside. Yes, the sun doesn’t shine at night, but by installing a few distributed power generators like BloomEnergy’s Power Servers (and encouraging more research into other types of localized generators), we could eliminate the need completely for massive, polluting plants.

Solar isn’t the only answer to the world’s energy crisis. But it has to be a major component of the final solution. It’s not perfect. The sun doesn’t shine every day. We need bridge generators to get us through the times where the sun is down or hiding. I worry that some components of the panels may come from rare-earth metals, or that the production of the panels may produce a type of waste we are not dealing with effectively. I haven’t done all that research.

But I do know that we cannot go on, sticking our heads (and oil rigs and coal shovels) into the sand and ignoring the climate crisis that we are causing by consuming so many fossil fuels.  Little steps forward, like cutting our dependence by 25% are game changers in so many ways. 25% leads to 50%, and then to 100%.  With more electricity readily and cheaply available, and made from renewable sources, electric cars will soon become more of the rule than the exception. At the very least, my next vehicle will be a plug-in-hybrid, fueled by the sun when it’s in my garage.

I could have spent some of  that $20000 redoing my backyard, or saving it for my kids college fund, or given it to charity. I could have sunk it into the stock market, and worried about what that money was doing to the world. But I view the installation of these solar panels as a long term investment. Not just in my house value, but in my community, in Washington State, and in the Earth we call home. I think that’s an investment that will continue to deliver returns that exceed the monetary ones for years to come.

9 Comments on “My Plan To Takeover the World is Nearly Complete

  1. This is a great thing you did and I hope sooner than later it will be affordable.

    • You’re probably correct. The political tangent was not really necessary. But the arguments against alternative energy always start with the cost per KW compared to fossil fuels and the impact that cost will have on the US Economy. But those statistics never include the costs of the wars fought over oil in the price of a barrel of crude, and they never include the medical costs incurred by exposure to the pollution caused by coal plants and cars. Until those factors are included into every gallon of gas, and every ton of coal, the argument will remain the fallback position for those fighting to keep America tied to fossil fuels.

      I would love to see every gas station in the US display two sets of numbers on the pumps: the cost charged to your credit card each time you buy a gallon of gas, and the cost charged to your taxes to produce that gallon of gas. Only then can this conversation evolve from the same, old, tired arguments, and into something that benefits the whole Earth.

      • Ah, externalized costs. The one thing (well, one of the things) ordinary capitalism just sucks balls at dealing with in any useful way.

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