Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Own a Piece of the Sun

Tensions are rising in the Middle East as oil-powered dictatorships unravel. Gas prices at the pump are the highest they have ever been this time of year. The new coal-fired Edwardsport power plant may drive up electric rates by double digits over the next five years. Extraction, refining, shipping and combustion of fossil fuels degrade our health and the regenerative capacity of the natural systems that keep us alive. If only we had an alternative to our deadly addiction to fossil fuels.

Enter the sun, a fusion nuclear reactor safely parked 93 million miles away that each hour bathes the earth in enough free energy to equal all the energy used by man in a year. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet each year is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas and mined uranium combined.

You can grab your piece of this free energy bonanza with off-the-shelf hardware to power your home and electric automobile. For about the cost of an in-ground pool or cinema room or speedboat bobbing at the marina, your home and car can become your own power plant and vehicle fueling station.

Solar photovoltaic panels convert sunlight into electricity with no moving parts and they are typically guaranteed for at least 25 years. Electricity from a solar array can be used in the home and any excess can be sold back to the utility company at the same price you pay for it. Your utility provides a credit for excess power you produce that can be applied to months when the meter is spinning in their favor. Lincoln Heritage Public Library’s 2400-square-foot Chrisney branch library, in Spencer County, is completely powered by the sun and it produces about 1800 kilowatt-hours more electricity than it uses each year with its 8.9-kilowatt solar array. They have never paid an electric bill. The all-electric building is heated and cooled using a ground-source heat pump with two vertical wells.

A well-insulated, energy efficient three-bedroom home with ground-source heat pump can be designed in Bloomington to be net-zero-energy with an 8.5-kilowatt solar array with enough extra juice to charge an electric vehicle, like the Nissan Leaf, for 12,000 miles per year.

The electric car would require about three 200-watt panels, which would add about $2000 to the system. Compare this investment to the cost of fuel for a conventional compact car driven an average 12,000 miles per year getting 30 miles-per-gallon at $3-per-gallon and you get an annual fuel cost of $1200 for a conventional vehicle, not including oil changes. In other words, sometime during the second year, you would break even and your fuel is free for the next 23 plus years of the guaranteed life of the solar panels. If gas stays at $3 per gallon for the next 25 years, you would realize $30,000 in fuels savings and smile past the gas pump over 1000 times.

Net cost for a net-zero-energy home and car solar power system described above would be about $47,600 after the 30% federal tax credit. This example would allow you to sell approximately $2200 worth of solar renewable energy certificates and keep about 14,500 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year.

Solar panels may not be as sexy as that swimming pool, cinema room or speedboat, but the payback on investment is much greater and the peace of mind you will experience for the next 25 years of energy independence will be priceless.

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015: Good News or Bad?

More than twenty manufacturers are poised to offer plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, like the Chevy Volt, and plug-in battery-electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, in 2011 or 2012. A few of these cars are beginning to roll off dealer lots into the electrified garages of early adopters, assisted by tax incentives of up to $7,500. The race is on to see which country will dominate this new transportation frontier. The Obama administration set a goal of one million plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. highways by 2015.

This may be good news for energy security if electric cars can ease our dependence on imported fuel, which currently accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. supply. If the U.S. takes a leading role in the development of electric vehicles, Indiana could see a rejuvenation of its manufacturing sector, which includes a number of electric vehicle assembly and component manufacturers. In concert with a smarter grid and cleaner sources of electricity, electric vehicles hold the promise of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Most electric vehicles chargers are designed to delay charging to coincide with off-peak hours and many utility companies offer lower off-peak rates to encourage this behavior. Smart grid technology combined with smart vehicle and smart home technology may make it possible to utilize this extra nighttime capacity and may also provide the option for vehicle-to-grid flow of electricity during peak times. Used vehicle batteries, which retain about 80% of their capacity, may also provide storage for alternative energy systems like wind and solar power to further level the peaks and reduce the need for new power plants.

Battery-only electric vehicles have zero emissions at the bumper. The emissions occur at the point of electricity generation. Charged by electricity generated with the average national fuel mix for electric power generation, which is slightly less than half coal, these cars have significantly less overall emissions than gasoline combustion vehicles and even conventional hybrids like the Prius.

Unfortunately, that math doesn’t work in Indiana where approximately 94 percent of electricity is generated by coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly half of Indiana power plant coal is imported from other states, mostly Wyoming, relying on diesel fuel for mining, processing, disposal and transport. Both of these high-carbon fuels are subject to rising global supply and demand concerns, rapidly rising costs, increasing risk of carbon legislation, and detrimental health and environmental consequences.

According to a recent study by an expert panel commissioned by Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a 2007 joint study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, a conventional Prius gas hybrid would currently trump an all-electric Leaf in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in Indiana and a handful of other coal-dependent states.

To realize the full promise of electric vehicles and the smart grid, and to secure its future, Indiana must move aggressively to diversify its renewable energy portfolio. Major wind installations are a good start, but Indiana will need legislative incentives, at least as robust as surrounding states, to encourage renewable energy development and reduce its exposure to the significant health, environmental, economic, and compliance risks associated with having all of its energy eggs in one coal bucket.

While we await progress on this legislative imperative, it is currently possible to have a home in Indiana powered completely by renewable energy, with the extra capacity to charge an electric vehicle. See my next column to learn how to supply your power, heating and cooling, and transport needs at home with current technology.


Sidebar: An expert panel, commissioned by the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, spent the last year surveying the electric vehicle horizon. Their timely 80-page report, Plug-in Electric Vehicles: A Practical Plan for Progress, released earlier this month, addresses the barriers to the million electric vehicle goal and associated interrelated strategies that would contribute to success.