Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Solar Challenge, More than Racing...


Do we need local endowments for more Solar Challenges ? This blog is about reducing carbon footprints primarily through commuting by bike. However, with vehicle trends such as the Vectrix, Aptera, Zap Electric, BugEv, Myers Motors, Tesla Motors and hundreds of other electric vehicle projects, it just makes sense that we be looking at Solar PV to augment our power needs. When you consider what these college teams are doing at the Solar Challenge events, it becomes obvious that we're not all going to be driving around with solar panels right away - so what can we do right away ?

Much like the strain that ethanol and biodiesel are putting on our agricultural supplies, electric vehicles can be expected to start straining our utility resources. Looking back at the brownouts and blackouts we've experienced during heat waves, one can't help but think that we'd better get busy building solar shaded parking lots and installing charge stations for early adopters. If the US experiences a heat wave such as the one that Europe did in 2003, it could be catastrophic. 35,000 Europeans died as a result of thermal stress from the heat, most did not have air conditioning. Consider that most of us 'do' have air conditioning, but do we have an infrastructure strong enough to carry the load of a severe hotspell ?

I came across an article discussing a project in August 2001 where the Chelan County PUD launched an innovative program called Sustainable Natural Alternative Power (SNAP), that links PUD customers who want to support the development of renewable energy with local producers of that energy. PUD customers who pay a little more -- from $2.50 to $50 a month -- on their energy bills for SNAP are in effect purchasing solar and wind power from grid-connected installations in the community. This is a Green program that's supported much like an endowment.

About 520 or less than 2% of Chelan County PUD customers are SNAP purchasers. I spoke with the program's administrator, Jim White, P.E. asking to discuss how well this program is working currently in terms of new adopters and new installs. He said they have not recently been marketing the program, but installations for new power have grown from 35kW in 2002 to over 134kW today. The PUD’s initial goal was to have 3% to 4% of customers participate as purchasers. He also commented that the State of Washington now has incentives, so it just makes sense to use their program and the Federal incentives.

We also discussed the issue of system load due to adoption of plug-in type electric vehicles. Chelan PUD now has one Prius with the High Motion A123 conversion and plans to add a dozen more at a cost of nearly $12K each. When asked for a quote on what people should consider Jim said, "There's an oil well on every roof. 350 quare feet is all anyone needs to make the average commute with a plug-in electric hybrid. Solar PV is about $8.00 a watt installed, which is equivalent to $3.50 per gallon gas". If you add State and Federal incentives the cost goes down significantly from $8.00 per watt, so that means we're wasting money by not having plug-in's - let alone the environmental benefit. Just a couple of years ago it was a twenty or more year payback - now it's like six years. With the current incentives, somebody could really profit in a very short time while also stimulating our economy... woo-hoo !

In my locale, Eugene, OR, I would love to see a program that works with solar integrators and utilities doing something similar... but rather handle it as a public endowment that installs new solar roofs on our schools to offset upgrade and maintenance expenditures and future energy costs, which are certain to rise based on my review of the current EWEB IERP. We certainly are in a period of opportunity with the current State and Federal incentives. I somehow see this and installations on city facilities as a means to start plugging in to Solar, and transitioning to a cleaner, more electrified planet. As for me, I'll see you out there - on my bike, of course ! - JD Howell, Eugene, OR.

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