I promise to get off this topic of energy policy soon. I really do have other things to talk about but here’s one more just the same.
During a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado I asked if current policy actually maintains that the hydrogen economy for fuel cells really has any merit. It seemed to me that hydrogen gas stations just wasn’t going to work for dozens of different reasons. (Did you know that the flame from a burning hydrogen leak is completely invisible? Well it is until the high temperature flame burns right through your pants and your leg….) I was surprised to learn about a model that does make sense though. NREL pointed out that if consumers generated their own power, at home, they could store it in hydrogen fuel cells for cars (or other applications) and remove all (or at least most) of the distribution problems associated with hydrogen.
Let’s suppose it costs around $10,000 for enough solar panels to power your home. You’re off the grid now and occasionally even selling energy back to the utility but your payback on this investment in savings is more than 10 years, even at current energy prices. Aside from Ed Begley Jr. few of us are committed enough to afford this kind of investment. But what if we could?
According to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) of all 27.8 out of 40.3 exajoules (69%) of power for residential, commercial and industrial use is lost energy. Open this link (it’s a great graph) U.S. Energy Flow Trends –2002 in a separate window and follow along. That loss is due to inefficiencies in energy distribution from inductive storage to resistance along the power lines. More than two thirds of our electric power is thrown away, the majority of which as a result of moving it from the power plant to your home. If we saved just over 76% of this power lost we could stop using coal completely. Coal is used almost exclusively in electric power generation and we could eliminate coal just by reducing loss (not consumption, just loss!) Putting solar panels or a wind generator on your property eliminates all that distribution loss for the energy you consume.
Democratizing energy distribution has other advantages as well. Obviously emissions decrease, but also security risks. I’ve been to power plants and I can assure you it would be extremely easy for terrorists to cause major disruptions to power generation without even flying an airplane into a building. Democratized energy is more robust in exactly the same way the internet is. Knock out one server and the others take up the slack. Centralized power distribution is easily threatened.
Meanwhile on 8 August, 2005, President Bush signed the Energy Bill of 2005 into law. “Of the $14.5 billion tax package, renewable energy and energy efficiency received only $4.5 billion while fossil fuels received $5.6 billion and nuclear power received $1.3 billion.” The law supports renewable energy and has other small victories but overwhelmingly supports the status quo energy policy. Suppose we took just half of that $4.5 billion and instead of offering subsidies to power plants and oil companies we offered loans (not even a subsidy, just a loan that has to be paid back) to individuals who put solar or other zero emission energy generation on their homes. The loan has to be paid back in, say, 10 years.
Clearly, only the wealthy and upper middle class have houses big enough to start installing new solar panels, but what if, thanks to this government loan, a mere half a million people did so. I know I would. I know friends of mine would. I don’t mind paying for solar panels, but $10K is just too big a pill especially for a house I may not live in forever. I may never even see the payback. With the loan I can afford it now and my return on investment starts happening immediately. Do you think the price of solar panels and installation would remain so high? Imagine the boost to the economy from this new industry selling, installing, and servicing wind generators and solar panels on single family dwellings. Every one of those installations reduces emissions not only from their consumption, but also from the two thirds loss thanks to distribution. Every one of those installations increases security in the U.S. Costs of solar and wind plummet and it becomes affordable for commercial and less well-to-do customers. And, in ten years all those loans are paid back.
We won’t eliminate distribution or distribution losses completely. We will still need power plants. There will still be plenty of homes and apartment complexes that won’t be served well by solar or wind. But suddenly asking everyone in Iowa to move away to make room for the wind generators isn’t necessary to achieve the goals of increasing zero emission power in our mix. As I’ve noted before, renewable energy (even the emission producing kinds) currently make up only around 1% of the U.S. energy sources. If we were to double the amount of solar and wind farms we still would barely make a dent. But by democratizing energy production, our impact is greatly improved and the only cost is some ugly roofs (which I think will be seen as cool really quickly) and the government giving up it’s attachment to the status quo.
I’d love to have solar panels on my home. It’s time the government stopped subsidizing business (or, as in my proposal only reduced it’s subsidies) and enable an actual, grass roots shift in energy generation and distribution. It’ll be cheaper for all of us in the long run.