Is there a free lunch in paradise? the cost of solar

The dream of powering your home and car on solar and wind is a reality for some people. But it comes as a cost for others.

When I was director of the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance, a name given for the federally funded two-year project to introduce EVs via education and outreach, I learned of the lucky residents who installed solar panels on their roofs and paid a flat $18 per month in total electric bills. They had received tax credits for the capital investment. With the addition of a 100% electric vehicle, these residents achieved the dream of driving on renewable energy — solar by day and wind overnight.

However, there is a catch. There is no free lunch.

I remember the first article I wrote on this subject, way back in March 2001 as editor of two now-defunct energy magazines. The Germans were one of the first to embrace renewable energy and introduce market mechanisms to make it work. Over the years, I visited with my London-based doctoral supervisor who continued to research the economics of green energy in such markets. He exclaimed on one of my visits, “German electricity price is negative. They will pay you to use electricity.”IMG_2127-ERASER

Electricity is not like water or oil. It does not go where you want it to go. It took me years to explain this to energy traders who teamed up with utility engineers in the early days of electricity trading in Houston.

Anne Ku, “EVs to Reduce Dependence on Imported Oil: Challenges and Lessons from Maui” p. 229 – 247

In the case of renewable energy such as wind and solar, you can’t will the wind to blow or the sun to shine. It’s intermittent. Yet electricity must be there when you turn on the switch. You could say that electricity is always “on demand” and at the beck and call of the user. The cost of making the intermittent non-intermittent is what the rest of the system must bear. This translates to higher cost for everybody else.

Over the years, I’ve heard protests from the solar industry about the local utilities not letting them install solar panels because their distribution circuit had reached saturation. The former energy commissioner of Maui County had tried to explain to me why the system was not fair. Home owners get to install solar panels, get tax credit and pay a flat monthly bill while renters and those on lower income had to ride the electricity curve, including higher base energy tariffs.

Today  the article “Hawaii learning pitfalls of renewable energy” explains the lessons learned from Germany and the United Kingdom.

In the meantime, paradise is a paradox. With abundance of sunshine, tradewinds, and surrounding ocean, why is the price residents pay for electricity three times the national average, and twice that of the nearest competitor (New York State) ?

9/14/2015 Civil Beat has a point to make: politics are why our electricity bills will remain high

One of the reasons for introducing electric vehicles is to use their batteries as storage to counter the intermittency of renewable energy production. The idea of charging EVs overnight when electric demand is low but wind power is high and discharging EVs during peak periods is a novel, if a naive one. Would you discharge your EV when you get home after a day at the office? How much charge is left by the time you get home? Peak hours are typically around sunset.

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About BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.
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