The Myth of Disruptive (Power) Technologies

I’ve thrown out a complex and controversial post on the advance of technologies (or not), with the promise of going into detail later.  Better elaborate before people get worked up:

I claimed “Cheapening solar power will not sweep away all, most, or even some competing power sources.”  Both George W. Bush and Ray Kurzweil anticipate that due to the march of technology, solar power will reach crossover (cost-competitiveness with fossil power) somewhere around 2015.  While the adoption of solar power will create benefits, older forms of energy will go on for some time, for reasons that will go on for some time.  Thus, 2015 (if that is, indeed, the year) will not be as earth-shattering as it seems.

Financing.  Buying a solar-power system is like pre-paying your electric bill… for decades to come.  If you can’t lick that monthly envelope without first checking your account balance, how will you mail 300 months’ worth?

You take out a loan, that’s how.  Every solar installer has some creditors available as part of the package.  Paying back that loan is then similar to bills from the electric company, but cheaper.  Alternative financing methods include rental and leasing.  The power utility or a solar company still owns the panels on your roof, then sends you a smaller monthly bill than you’d have paid with no panels.

Even though homeowners’ electric bills are considered a decent risk, we’re still in an era of tight financing.  (At least, compared to 2006/2007- everything else is tight credit by comparison.)  Besides the technological innovations in advanced photovoltaic cells, we’ll also need more financing models from more lenders, more often.  This has absolutely nothing to do with solar-cell technology, or any other technologies.

Secondary and Indirect Panel and System Costs.  The numerous and latest advances in solar cells are just that- in the cells.  Unless you’re running a watch or calculator, you’ll need to connect the cells into strings.  And the strings into arrays.  Then seal the arrays into weatherproof panels.  Then mount the panels on your property.  Then hook the cables into your breakers, without shorts or rain leaks or other hazards.  The cell costs are falling, but we are now at a point where the remaining costs-not falling anywhere near as fast- are as much as the cells and strings.

In other words, solar vendors must still pay for installer and electrician time, and clunking across strange rooftops and into strange basement wiring ain’t cheap.  Unlike cell technologies, these costs probably won’t have a eureka moment from some scientist.

For example, some electric utilities are demanding a solar-cutoff switch in your residence.  Since the utility reserves the right to cut your supply, they need to send an employee to your place, whether you cooperate or not.  With no cutoff switch, your breakers might still carry lethal current from the panels, even if the company has already stopped transmitting.  Thus, the utility employee’s life might become a conflict of interest for you; the utility simply won’t accept that.  A standardized cutoff switch, then, becomes an additional cost of doing business for having both solar and grid power.  This cost simply did not exist when you just supped off the utility teat like everyone else.

(This is doubly so for solar-thermal power.  Solar thermal is less likely to have a eureka moment, and thus pay for its mundane aspects.)

Secondary and Indirect Grid Costs.  Our electrical grid dates back anywhere from the ’90s to the ’40s, depending on location.  It’s still set up in a client/server model, to borrow a computer term.  Solar power, on the other hand, is more peer-to-peer.  Some customers will have their own panels, while some localities will have big panel farms helping supply the whole area.  Both will be smaller than the existing fossil or nuclear plants, which are highly centralized, and help supply multiple states.  Estimates of the  grid repairs and modifications necessary for more-localized power are many billions of dollars; the ARRA (“stimulus package”) contributed a few billion, with private industry contributing not even two.

As long as solar power is a small fraction of our generating capacity, the client/server grid will hold.  Before solar power grows large enough to displace other sources, someone’s got to pay the grid costs.  No one wants to.  More likely, true crossover will not be in 2015 or 2016, since the bill for grid work will eat up a fraction of the gross cost savings from future solar.  Net savings will then begin some other year.

. . .

Again, I don’t take this as pessimism, or solar-bashing, and I hope you don’t either.  I have a shiny MP3 player, and yet there are still CDs and records knocking around the place.  Sure, a well-ripped, high-rate MP3 blows away the old formats in listening experience.  But I simply can’t rip box after box of my old albums, and don’t want to toss hard copies and liner notes- the gross ownership experience is more evenly matched.  But that, too doesn’t mean MP3s have somehow failed, and should be bashed by future-haters.


3 thoughts on “The Myth of Disruptive (Power) Technologies

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Disruptive (Reprovisioning) Technologies | cableflux

  2. Pingback: Kickstarter = Slick Starter? Pick Smarter | cableflux

  3. Pingback: Charging, Part 8: We Roll Our Own, OPEC! | cableflux

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