June 11, 2012
By Matt Palmer
On Monday I booked an appointment with Enmax for a home visit to investigate if it is worthwhile installing a solar energy system. I am curious to learn more about how the system works, particularly the costs. I know it is not likely going to save us money, but if the costs are relatively equal, does it make sense to take the plunge to solar energy? Enmax began their “Generate Choice Program” in 2010, and so far, only about 250 homeowners have installed the system.
While the cost of solar is coming down, cost competitiveness compared to coal is challenging. Putting a price on carbon and other emissions begins to change that. The biggest problem: solar and wind, as of yet, cannot provide base load power. In other words, the intermittency of solar and wind, as our power system presently operates, prevents us from having electricity twenty-four hours a day. When there is no sun, you have to buy from the grid, and that means the coal plants keep running regardless. There is lots of debate about how to get around base load power issues, but it requires an overhaul of the system management of the electrical grid, and committing to paying the costs of shutting down coal plants. Who wants to pay for that to happen? Consumers will pay the cost eventually one way or the other.
Another problem keeping alternative energy systems from taking over in a major way from sources like coal is not some major conspiracy, it is physics. Scientists have been working for decades on battery storage, and while there have been improvements in battery technology, the theoretical limits of physics is preventing a major breakthrough. Storing electricity is difficult. I am not a scientist or physicist, so I know there will be many out there who can point to developing technologies, but regardless of the technology, the task is formidable. I found this article on energy storage limits on Google, if you want to read more about it.
As the article points out, research into battery storage is happening. One project based out of Cambridge and MIT has Bill Gates as a major investor and supporter. More money for research is needed. The point though, is that any new technology is still years away from commercial large-scale adoption.
So, if solar will not save money, and the electricity harnessed cannot be stored (although excess is sold back to the grid), and it will not reduce the amount of coal being burned, is there a point to switching? Certainly there is the “feel good” factor. People who are making the effort to switch to hybrid cars, or buy their energy from companies like Bullfrog (wind generation), or install solar panels, probably feel great about the choice and that they are making a contribution. The actions of a few can inspire many. But, the choices are not simple, and create their own set of impacts. Hybrid batteries are toxic, and disposal is a problem. The nanotechnology and nano-particles used in new generation solar panels present a problem in end-of-life disposal, much like e-waste issues with computers. Should these barriers stop us from adopting different choices?
This recent article from the Canada West Foundation’s “Let’s Talk Energy” points out that energy consumption in Alberta, is the highest in the Canada. It begs the question: what is more important, where our energy comes from or how much we consume? Both are critical issues. Prioritizing is helpful when it comes to complex issues, but tackling energy consumption or switching fuel sources presents unique challenges to energy companies, policy makers, and investors, not to mention us consumers.
Does your head hurt yet? It may, but consider that fundamental solutions are within our reach at a community level. As individuals, working with our neighbours, and our community associations, we create the inertia for change through simple choices. Home energy audits are a great way to start. We need energy to support our way of life, but consider how much energy (particularly electricity) we waste every day? How much food do we waste? And water? Wasting food and water, wastes energy.
Once the research is done, my family may make the choice to install solar. Choosing to do so may inspire others. Others may scoff. Where we can make an impact is cutting down on where we waste energy, and there are many areas where that can be done, without any sacrifice to lifestyle. Talking about those choices within our community inspires others to make similar choices.
These days it is easy to throw blame, to be angry, to feel that there are mass conspiracies keeping us from making changes to the system. That is an energy choice.
What is your energy?