Solar is coming! Solar is Coming!

For my money, I would bet [Elon] Musk can upend a stodgy electricity business with little interest in innovation before it can beat out the behemoths who control the auto industry. – Daniel Sparks, The Motley Fool

Perhaps you’ve read about European utilities entering a ‘death spiral’ because they would rather go down fighting than switch to renewables like solar and wind? Expect something similar in the U.S. in the not too distant future. I’m with Daniel Sparks (quote above) that it’s billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk, along with partners like Google ($300 million in SolarCity) who will continue to give utility CEOs, and their legislative minions, agita in the years ahead and the rest of us, reason to hope and rejoice.

Could business-done-right leverage society into a new era of clean, affordable energy when government’s hands are tied? What if the innovative muscle and wealth of our most forward-thinking companies could reverse the damage of business as usual?

It’s energizing to think so, and there are plenty of signals that solar power will become inevitable when 1. Costs drop further and 2. The public demands it (that would be you and me).  So, I’m devoting this post to a series of annotated links in support of these possibilities. I urge you to learn all you can about solar power and how best to advocate for its adoption in your community. And if you have the wherewithal to do so, consider investing in solar, e.g. SCTY (Nasdaq).

Solar panel imageGenerating solar power isn’t difficult, especially where sunshine is abundant. Just remember, “Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.” (Source: National Geographic)  If 89-year-old Québécois, Claude Morency, can keep his kidney-shaped pool at a cozy 80°F year round with solar panels on his North Palm Beach home, so can anyone with $1,500 to invest in installation. Payback is between 1.5 to 7 years, according to Florida Solar Energy Center, a great source of cost-comparisons and other information. In fact, Morency is no newcomer to solar. As a full-time sailor, he powered his live/work sailboat with solar batteries for at least a decade.

The tricky part has been power storage for use when the sun isn’t shining (or the wind blowing, for that matter). But that’s about to change. At the moment, our condo (powered by renewables, courtesy Arcardia) also powers up our leased Nissan Leaf with a nightly plug-in. Apparently, power can flow the other way in an emergency, which is reassuring here in the hurricane belt. But it gets better, according to Elon Musk, who has announced that his company is within six months of producing a battery-pack for the home. Do I have your attention yet?

What would a Tesla home battery look like? The Toyota Mirai, which uses a hydrogen fuel cell, gives owners the option to remove the battery and use it to supply electrical power to their homes. That battery can reportedly power the average home for a week when fully charged. Employees at many big Silicon Valley tech companies already enjoy free charging stations at their office parking lot. Now imagine if they could use that juice to eliminate their home electric bill. A more practical application for your car would be a backup generator during emergencies, which is how Nissan pitches the battery in its Leaf. – The Verge

You may have heard that this revolution will be local. Actually, they usually start there.  So while Congress and state legislatures fiddle, some forward-thinking municipalities are showing us why a clean energy is the only future, and why it makes economic sense right now. See: Burlington, Vermont Becomes First U.S. City to Run on 100% Renewable Energy.

Now admittedly, Burlington, population 42,000, is probably an ideal sized city for such a bold move. Most small towns simply don’t have the financial muscle to kiss their utility goodbye and negotiate their own power sourcing. Wrap your mouth around this possible solution: community choice aggregation (CCA), a system that enables “cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis, but allowing consumers not wishing to participate to opt out.” (Wikipedia definition). Already happening in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Don’t hold your breath for Florida which is, I kid you not, attempting to ban the use of the phrase, ‘climate change.’

Not So Strange Bedfellows. Despite some pockets of open-mindedness (Go Solar Florida’s workshops, this Wednesday, March 11, 2015), one has to look beyond the Sunshine State for signs of intelligent life on this subject. And there is growing evidence the solar revolution may be fueled by people who don’t generally occupy the same meeting rooms, beginning to work together on common goals. At this moment, it matters not whether our motivation is to secure a future for our grandchildren via renewable energy, or we’re more driven by the right to choose based on our free market system. Maybe it’s time to shake hands with Debbie Dooley of the Green Tea Coalition and offer a high five to Barry Goldwater, Jr. of TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed).

The sun also rises in Africa. Good news for the family of Kenyan villager, David Lodio, whose single solar panel now generates enough power to enable his children to do their homework, and for the 585 million who currently have no access to electricity.  For rural Africa (which largely skipped the fossil-fueled industrial revolution), solar power will change everything for the better.

Let me close this short chapter in an on-going solar success story with a news flash.  This morning, a solar-powered plane took off from Abu Dhabi for the first leg of what will be a round the world flight. The Wright Brothers II?  Up, up, and away!

Lots more information in the live links throughout and here:

36% of All New Electric Capacity in 2014 from Solar

Popular Mechanics on solar energy storage

Greenier Than Thou?

OK, I’ll admit that our switch from Florida Power and Light to Pear Energy, a renewable energy broker over a year ago, right after we began our lease of a Nissan Leaf, made me feel a tad smug. Competitions about one’s carbon footprint don’t seem out of line, given the state of the Planet.  Not to mention that I managed to convince a small number of friends to make the switch.

Pear Energy imageWe stuck with Pear despite accusations in social media that the company was engaged in ‘green-washing,’ because here in South Florida, there seemed to be no better choice.  The company’s move from Miami to Amherst, MA, gave me pause but it was business as usual. Here’s a link to the discussion between that convinced us we’d rather fight than switch back: I’ve written some damage-control PR in my life, so I appreciated how Pear answered its critics:

… it is important to keep in mind that we are an independent REC seller, which is a different model than that of a local utility’s green energy program. Local utilities are established, profitable businesses that simply add REC sales into their mix of services, as one very small share of their overall operations. These established utilities do not need to generate additional revenue through REC sales because they use their profits from selling electricity generated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy to provide a tiny subsidy to their purchases of clean energy RECs. By contrast, because REC sales are one of Pear Energy’s main activities, a portion of our charges must go to supporting our staff and our business operations. So, to summarize: 100 percent of all of our business activity supports the development of green energy in the U.S.

So imagine my surprise yesterday, when I received this email.

Dear Marika Stone,

Your Pear Energy account is officially closed as of November 10, 2014. As previously mentioned, Pear Energy is no longer offering our residential renewable energy service for homes and small businesses.

  • You will receive utility bills again. Please make payments directly to FPL normally. In addition, you may be receiving a verification email from your utility due to the recent changes made on your account.

Thank you again for supporting renewable energy and helping to build the green economy.


The Billing Department
Pear Energy
(877) 969-7327

Apparently, I wasn’t the only customer who was upset at the news because today, another email arrived from Pear Energy offering us renewable energy via one of its partners, Acadia Power.  We’ll look before we leap, of course.  I won’t be surprised if there is a whole lot more of this kind of shaking out as we move toward renewables, and neither should you be.  In fact, I welcome it. Stay tuned

REC – Renewable Energy Certificates

Personal Energy Descent Plan

Relocalizing, resilience and community-building are hallmarks of the Transition Movement, but at the heart of it all is energy descent. This recognizes that 1. global warming is real and threatens not only our way of life but life itself, and 2. easy energy is history (aka Peak Oil).  Absent a technological breakthrough that can be scaled quickly enough to fill current needs, energy shortfall is the reality we are all facing, sooner rather than later. Energy, including our own human energy, is something we have some control over, so it behooves us to experiment, here and now, in order to become better able to handle it and other challenges, e.g. food and potable water shortages, that could arise further down the road.

‘Cheap’ energy has created our civilization and continues to drive it forward (although the costs will soar once externalities become accounted for). So in one sense, people who already ‘make do’ with far less energy have a leg up on us. To take one example: as difficult as it is to imagine in the Southeastern U.S., with millions of square feet artificially cooled, many people around the world have developed other strategies for dealing with extreme heat. Think mud walls. Strategically placed trees and landscaping. Minimal clothing. Communal watering holes. Siestas. Evening strolls (paseo). Even spicy foods. Hold these in your mind while you recall that the thousands of people who succumbed to the ‘killer’ heat wave of 2003 were all in the developed parts of Europe, many housed in apartments during power outages, many isolated from family and friends.

What might we be able to learn from our ancestors and extant native traditions about cooling it?

As I sit here in my home office, feeling over-cooled though the thermostat reads 79°F, I find myself thinking about fellow Transitoners and artists, Beju Lejobart and Sherryl Muriente – he from France, she from Puerto Rico – who defy conventional wisdom that AC is best and have devised any number of methods to cool their single-family home in a neighboring town, including strategic positioning of fans to encourage cross-ventilation and a swimming pool they happily use in the middle of a hot night.   Sherryl also teaches urban planning at FAU, and dreams up ways of making small urban spaces more human-scale, walkable and liveable. See C’est La Via.

solar chargerAlthough we’re far from a Net-Zero existence, we keep adding to our personal energy descent plan in as many ways as we can. This morning, we got an invoice for $108. from Pear Energy, the renewable resources company that powers our home and EV.  In May, our power was supplied by Superior Wind Project, in Iowa, which came on-line in Spring 2009. We have previously been powered by Lakota Wind, also in Iowa, and now have the opportunity to switch to solar energy via Gainesville Regional Utilities for an extra $.01 per kilowatt-hour. When people who attend one of my rants, uh, presentations on global warming ask me, What can I do? I suggest the 10% local foods challenge, composting, and switching to Pear Energy as three very doable choices. No martyrdom here.

We cannot wait to see how the White House initiative on ‘carbon pollution’ will play out (or what kind of reframing will make global warming more easily digested by more people.) There is much we ordinary citizens can do about our own energy usage, and in Southeast Florida, that means paying attention to AC. Here are a few random facts and observations

  • Most indoor spaces are too cool for comfort (ask most women). We need smarter thermostats and zoned HVAC in our homes, and more responsive retailers, restaurateurs and public officials.
  • “Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We’re cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that’s still habitable.” William Saletan
  • Refrigerators and air conditioners are the largest consumers of energy in American homes today. Find ways to cut down.
  • AC use for the average American home emits over 6,600 pounds CO2 a year. Maybe smaller spaces are an answer. See LifeEdited. Or the Tiny House movement.
  • The U.S. uses more air conditioning than the rest of the world combined, but that is about to change as the developing world catches up. Let’s hope not.
  • Even Eskimos are purchasing AC units.

Final note: I added a Solar Charger to my sunny East window this morning and plugged in the iPhone I’m trying to rely on less. Two hours later, 100% charged. One small step for energy self-sufficiency…

Other Sources:

EPA, Clean Energy Calculations — very useful for an energy audit

Carbon Rally — take the challenge