The energy revolution is here

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The world is in the midst of an energy revolution. The rising costs of securing fossil fuels and the prospect of their depletion, combined with pollution from using these fuels, has increased interest in efficiency and renewable energy. The rise is so dramatic that it has raised concerns about the viability of the business model for existing utilities, particularly those relying on nuclear power.

One way to deal with the challenge is to change government rules stimulating the market for efficiency, wind and solar energy. A second economic challenge for some utilities comes from the use of low-cost natural gas from fracking to generate electricity. If natural gas prices rise substantially, the competitive position of nuclear power would improve.

Over the past decade, we have made periodic investments in solar electric systems, which illustrate the ongoing progress in improving the economics of solar electricity.

We installed our first set of 8 percent efficient solar panels in 2001, before our first energy fair. It cost about $10 per watt, including 12 hours of battery storage. We projected it would take 28 years to pay for itself.

In 2006, we installed a 1,600-watt PV system of 16 percent efficiency at $6 per watt with an estimated payback of 14 years.

This summer, we added a 5,300-watt system for $3 per watt. The panels are 18 percent efficient and should pay for themselves in seven years.

This August, our electric bill was $18 for grid connection, with no charge for electricity. If the cost for being grid connected increases dramatically, it could be cost effective to go off grid. As more users go off grid, the cost of maintaining the remaining grid increases costs to remaining customers, encouraging them to leave the grid as well.

Power producer NRG’s response to the changing conditions is to continue its use of fossil fuels and nuclear plants while expanding its investment in wind farms, electric vehicles, rooftop solar and mobile power sources.

Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway has already invested $30 billion in wind and solar farms and is considering investing another $30 billion. His recent solar investments have a return of 15 percent and will be paid off in five years.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), from 2012 to 2035, global investments in energy infrastructure and efficiency will reach $48 trillion, of which $6.4 trillion will be for renewables. Rooftop solar will account for half of the solar installations, as costs fall and efficiencies rise.

According to Amory Lovins, even large amounts of distributed and centralized power from solar and wind have proven resilient and manageable without storage. It is estimated that electrical storage sized at 10 percent of the overall production capacity of the grid would be sufficient to address the challenge of intermittent production from renewable sources.

Denmark produces 47 percent of its power from wind power and co-generation of agricultural waste.

Ellen Anderson from the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota reports that studies indicate Minnesota’s economy could be 100 percent powered by wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal, hydro and efficiency while remaining grid-connected.

To become part of the energy revolution, consider attending our Nov. 1 hands-on solar electric workshop (see www.illinoisrenew.org).

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 15-21, 2014, issue

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