Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The solar future: On-grid or Off-grid?>>> S.F. Chronicle

Buenas noches, solarDwellers:

Browsing through the San Francisco Chronicle today, it was interesting to see the article entitled: VENTURING OFF THE GRID Innovative families save money, gain power with solar, propane, other energy sources.

First, off-grid means the property/homeowner is REALLY into the alternative energy thing. They went ahead and literally cut the cord with the utility company, on purpose!!!! or they live out in the bush where the power company's power lines don't hang. In other words, they produce their own power from various sources: solar,wind,propane, highly-efficient generators, and, in order to have power when the sun don't shine or the wind aint blowin', they have a battery bank to store excess energy. These are the dedicated folk, living on the green-energy frontier, and quite possibly philosophically opposed to big, centralized, polluting, utility large-scale power plants. Here's a quote from the article extolling some of these virtues:

". . .it's increasingly mainstream and propelled by Americans' desire to eliminate electric bills, keep homes juiced during blackouts, minimize U.S. dependence on fossil fuel and, for activists, send a gesture of defiance to the power companies."

But, hey! Those "hippies"(not) have some long-term economic smarts too. Observe:

". . .while self-reliance is its own reward, Peltz emphasized, the biggest appeal is cost: After several years, you save more than you've spent."
"I've saved $200 a month for the last 20 years," Parkinson said. "That's my kids' education right there that I would have given to PG&E."

This last point speaks to the idea in a previous post of mine: when you have a long term view, solar is ALREADY a cost-effective, smart energy solution, not to mention mega GREEEN. And that guy who did it 20 years ago, he's got that nice, green citizen fuzzy feeling PLUS the money in the bank.

Now, for On-Grid solar and the rest of us. This is the most cost-effective type of solar electricity, for most city and suburb dwellers. This type of system is a hybrid: your solar panels are "tied" into the utility's electric grid; when there's no sun, you buy utility power at "nighty-time" prices(cheaper); when there's a plentitud of rays, you sell that juice BACK to the utility grid, at higher "day-time" prices. (This ebb and flow is called "net-metering with time-of-use(TOU) metering.) At the end of the year, the utility balances the energy books with you, and hopefully, your bill ends up at $0, meaning you produced enough solar to cancel out any you used from the utility. The downside: when the utility power goes out, your lights go out too, since you're "tied" to them. Not a big deal if power rarely goes out in your area; maybe a big negative if your utility power fails often.

Finally to sum up the slap-down rumble between the hard-core off-grid'ers, and those urbanite on-grid'ers, the folks at Humboldt State University decided to go for practicality, and not necessarily stay tied to the more-rebellious idea of "off-grid only/no utility imperialist power for me,"

"students formed the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. Today CCAT -- the campus' largest organization -- is renowned for its quirky alternative-energy projects, such as pedal-powered exercise-bike laptops, blenders and VCRs.

The center, which has an annual budget of $34,000 that doubles every five years, installed solar panels in 1984. Controversy struck in 2000 when the students chose to plug back into the grid to earn rebates from PG&E, contribute energy to the power company and ease the grid's overall load.

"It makes the whole thing cheaper," said Richard Engle, a Humboldt State research engineer. "CCAT could stubbornly stay off the grid and tout renewable energy as 'sticking it to the man,' but we -- those supporting the move -- felt it sent a more powerful message" to supply additional energy to the grid.

On-grid, Off-grid: each energy consumer can decide what's best for them. They each have their pros and cons, but both are tempting ways to DECREASE global warming emissions, control more of your energy sources, and be more energy independent.

--the solarDweller

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