John Robb: Solar Farming, Localized Power Resilience

05 Energy, Blog Wisdom
John Robb

SOLAR FARMING

Photovoltaic (PV) technology (aka solar panels) is advancing steadily.  That advance will occur regardless of whether we have an economic depression or booming prosperity.  This advance means that price of PV modules are dropping at a rate of 7% per year (as it has been doing that for decades). This means that by 2020, the price of a PV module (with micoconverters etc. included) will likely be close to $1 a watt (not including installation, which is also falling).  That puts PV tech within the range of being cost competitive with today’s alternatives.  As an added benefit, it’s possible that modules that approach this level of cost efficiency might also be locally printable (as in: they could be made in a 3D fab or grown in a bio-lab).

Naam-solar-moore_s-law-5 (1)The implication: for those communities able to deploy it in quantity, it will mean increasingly inexpensive energy for as many years into the future as you want to project.  For those that don’t, you will increasingly fall behind.

There is a caveat though. The real potential for this technology isn’t going to be found in a large number of big, commercial solar complexes.  Why?  The infrastructure and investment necessary to make this happen on a scale that really matters doesn’t exist in the US or EU anymore.  We are broke (and even if we weren’t, NIMBY is nearly impossible to overcome as the record of new power line construction over the last 30 years attests to).  So, it should be easy for us to conclude that it won’t get built at national/regional level (if you think otherwise, I have a planet I’d like to sell you).

Fortunately, there is a ray of hope.  For those of us building resilient communities, we WILL see this infrastructure deployed.  How?  Through the hard word and dedication of a resilient entrepreneur: the solar farmer.   The solar producer that keeps his/her entire community fed with increasingly inexpensive and bountiful solar energy, 24x7x365 (via energy storage for round the clock production).

A Platform For Local Solar Farming

Unfortunately, solar farmers won’t just won’t appear out of the blue.  They will require help.  A platform that makes it easy to sell power and power services to the grid.  Under the current regulatory and legal environment, that’s impossible.  The political interests, regulatory bureaucracies, and corporate monopolies would oppose or over complicate nearly every forward step.  Further, the actual physical infrastructure involved wouldn’t be up to the task (although there is lots of talk about a smart grid, the funds aren’t there to build it or build it in a way that makes local solar farming possible).

So, how does a resilient community build a solar farming platform?  Here’s what is required (this is MUCH easier to do with new construction):

  1. The community must own/operate the grid infrastructure that currently supplies them with power.  Buy it back if you don’t own it already.  If this is impossible, you might want to think about moving…
  2. Convert the local grid into a smart micro-grid.  A micro-grid is a digitized, small scale version of the national grid.  There are lots of commercial packages available for this already (like this: the Paladin SmartGrid).  A micro-grid turns the community’s local grid from a simple pipe into a digital platform (like the Internet).  This means that new date rich features can be added to the local power system, irrespective of how far behind the national grid is, and it can operate independently from the larger national grid if it goes down (which is a big advantage).
  3. Add plug and play power generation AND a power micro-market.  The combination of these features lets solar farmers, whether entrepreneurial family farmers or farmer co-operatives (that share expertise and equipment) rapidly jump into generating power and selling it the same prices as the national retail rate (until local competition starts to produce enough to drive it down).  As solar power module costs drop, the biggest costs involved will be installation, continuous optimization, and operational mx.  The tasks that farmers excel at.  Over time, it’s likely that solar farmers will differentiate by adding power services, energy storage, and heating services.