Solar Power 2.0

powerlines.jpgI threatened to post a further set of musings last week on the subject of solar power in response to Archie’s latest post on the subject. This is that response.

Archie mentioned a few things. Mainly that Solar is the most abundantly available form of sustainable energy. This is doubly true when you consider that wind power is also largely driven by solar. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s discard wind power as a major contributing factor to an electricity grid. I’m not saying it won’t or shouldn’t be. I’m going to talk about New Zealand’s situation, but it’s fairly indicative of most developed nations. I plan to address the ‘global grid’ concept towards the end, but let’s look local first.

I stress this is all purely conceptual. It’s certainly not all my idea, and I doubt there are any ideas here not already roaming freely elsewhere.

The first logical step is energy conservation. This is already well underway here from central government, with tv ads giving tips on the subject, discounts available on energy-saving lightbulbs, and government/councils spending money on insulating people’s homes for them. Ok, that’s that point dealt with.

The next step is to shift towards lots of solar panels. Either the water heating kind or electricity gathering. I believe our government is already offering interest free loans for the purpose of installing solar water heating in one’s home. I think that’s awesome.

Let’s talk about the grid. Right now it’s top down, with a few-to-many relationship. Power is generated by a limited number of sources, mostly hydro dams and gas plants, in great quantity and fed into the national grid sufficiently to keep the voltage acceptably constant with minimal fluctuations. This is what is meant by power quality.

Current mainstream thinking on solar electricity is that if every residential dwelling were equipped with a modern, moderately efficient solar panel or small wind turbine (probably the panel) then each would be able to reduce their reliance on the national grid. It would still be there for when it’s cloudy or there’s no wind. Houses would have battery banks to last them through the night and supply for a while if the next day is cloudy.

I propose going a step further to a many-to-many grid. If every dwelling has the capacity to both generate it’s own power and store its surplus then would it be possible to sell your unwanted electricity back into the grid? There may be a flaw in my thinking as it may be troublesome to convert your stored energy to AC current of sufficient quality to feed into the grid, but what if it is possible? If this is technically feasible, could a portion of the country that is sunny collectively sell its surplus production to a cloudy part of the country? Taking this a step further, could a country collectively sell by day to another night-bound country?

This many-to-many arrangement fits the square kilometers of required panels into the existing architecture of the country, eliminating the need to fence off large tracts of land for solar farms. That might not be so hard to do in Australia, for example, but in NZ you might have some trouble. I think it’s a slightly more elegant solution.

Is this at all achievable? You might have to ask a more qualified engineer than myself that, but assuming the technical issues of power transmission could be solved I believe than it can be done. One issue might be the efficiency of commercially available solar cells. This may need to improve before it becomes seriously achievable.

I believe that New Zealand stands well positioned to show some real leadership on this. We are a small, technologically developed nation, with a population that overwhelmingly believes in being ecologically friendly. With dedicated leadership from several consecutive governments we could do it.

As always, I invite opinion. I certainly invite people to try and push some action from their governments.

All it would take would be one country or state to figure out how to do it.


2 Responses to “Solar Power 2.0”

  1. 1 raincoaster 6 February, 2007 at 9:04 am

    Hoo boy, do you ever NOT live in Vancouver. Here, the University of British columbia has determined that at any given time it is 56% likely to be raining and over 80% likely to be completely overcast. Now, if we could power things with the kintetic energy of falling raindrops, we’d have something.

  2. 2 Envelope Filter 6 February, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Not sure what the stats are, but there are some parts of the west coast of the south island (like Fjordland in the DEEP south) that must be that wet. The difference might be that we didn’t build a major city there.

    Funny – I spent two weeks in Vancouver a few years ago and it was sunny the whole time. Maybe I was just lucky.

    Auckland has similar stats, but replace ‘any given time’ with ‘on any given day during winter’

    Subtropical is awesome.

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