Energy Self-Sufficiency
By John D. Turner
17 Jul 2007

Having previously described the dependence of the United States on foreign oil as a strategic Center of Gravity, the next question is, “how can we eliminate it?” The answer to that is “not easily”. Even if we were to identify “energy independence” as a national goal and begin immediately a crash-priority effort aimed at achieving it, years would pass before the goal could be reached – assuming complete energy independence is even possible.

At one point in time, the problem was described as “dependence on cheap foreign oil”. Well, the oil is no longer cheap, and the dependency is still there. Worse yet our dependency is financing those powers and organizations hostile to us, and is bolstering their ability to do us harm. We are paying for the rope that is being used to hang us.

So what can we do about it? If the solution to the problem is long term, how can we in the short term act to mitigate the problem while we are working on the long term solution?

California wants to help solve the problem by banning incandescent light bulbs. Congress sees laws demanding increased gas mileage from automobiles as a big part of the solution. These measures may help, but they are at best only partial solutions. They don’t really help end our dependency; they just defer it down the line a few years. That is the problem with confusing conservation measures with solutions; as population increases, energy needs increase. Conservation measures and increased efficiency may slow the rate of increase, but you eventually get to the same place anyway.

I am not saying we shouldn’t conserve, or be more efficient. Both are desirable. But they are not the solution to the problem. In order to cut our dependence on foreign oil, we need to eliminate oil (and natural gas) as the major components of our energy requirements. We need to find another way of generating electricity for domestic means, and another way of fueling our transportation system (cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes).

Oil and natural gas are hugely important to our national economy quite apart from their use in generating electricity and fueling our vehicles. The high crop yields we enjoy on our farms, for example, are due to the use of high nitrogen fertilizers. And the majority of nitrogen fertilizers come from petroleum products. Note that this being the case, higher oil costs lead directly to higher food costs, even if the transportation costs are excluded. Additionally, petroleum is invaluable in many of the industrial processes and consumer products we currently enjoy. For these reasons alone, oil and natural gas need to be removed from the energy and transportation cycle as much as possible, so that domestic sources can be used for these other purposes, and little, if any, is imported from abroad.

This is important for two reasons. One, so that we do not continue to fund those who mean us harm by the very acts of driving our cars and lighting our homes, and two, to avoid the inevitable conflict over energy resources with industrializing countries (particularly China and India) that will result as we increasingly compete for the same reserves overseas.

So how do we go about doing this? How do we go about changing the energy generation side of the equation, so that we can continue living our current lifestyles, and at the same time wean ourselves from this dependence on foreign oil that has become a hugely detrimental to our nation? As I have already stated, conservation is not the answer. Conservation alone will lead to a much lower standard of living and will ultimately not lessen our dependence. I for one am not willing to voluntarily lower my standard of living in pursuit of a goal that is physically impossible; you will have to drag me there kicking and screaming.

Much has been made of “renewable” sources of energy, primarily alcohol and biodiesel (from plant sources), solar, and wind. While I see these as contributors to the big picture, I don’t see them as primary energy sources.

Alcohol and biodiesel, for all the hype, are both evolutionary dead ends. The biggest question is how much money we will throw down these rat holes before we finally admit it.

Aside from the ethical problem of converting food crops to fuel when we have starving people all over the globe (imagine, a conservative playing the “starving children in India” card!), I believe that we will ultimately find that as we scale up to the production we would require to convert all our surface transportation to E85, that it simply isn’t practical to do so, barring a breakthrough in technology that allows us to cheaply convert waste biomass (such as corn stalks, grass clippings, etc) into alcohol. Issues such as increasing the amount of land under cultivation, increased need for nitrogen fertilizer (made from petroleum), increased requirements for irrigation (when fresh water is already becoming a problem in many areas), increased runoff from cropland (containing fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) into lakes and streams, competition with food production, and others will ultimately combine to limit the amount of alcohol we produce for use in our automobiles.

Biodiesel may have more play; however there is only so much vegetable oil one can recycle. And while this is only one source from which biodiesel can be produced, I still cannot see it as a long-term solution.

Wind and solar both have similar problems. One, they are not reliable as energy sources, two, they take up a large amount of land area to implement, and three, they are not very efficient.

Solar only works during the day (unless you are talking about space solar, which is an entirely different issue). Additionally, it does not generate a consistent amount of power; it’s great when the sun is out, but when it goes behind a cloud, your electrical generation heads south. It works better at lower latitudes where you get more sun than higher latitudes where the length of the day changes more radically. In Alaska for example, it would be OK in the summer when daylight hours are extended; in the winter, not so much. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that solar panels don’t work at all when they are covered by snow. And since solar panels are not very efficient at turning sunlight into electricity, a solar power generating plant would have a much larger “footprint” than would a conventional oil or gas fired plant, with associated impact on the environment.

For these reasons, solar power plants would best be sited in locations such as Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Southern California, with the power generated there from massive collections of panels then piped into the power grid and shipped to wherever needed.

Wind power too is inconsistent. You only get it if the wind is blowing, and the amount you get is dependent on how fast the wind is blowing, which changes constantly. There is an upper limit; if the wind is blowing too hard, the wind generators must be taken off line to avoid damage. Unlike solar, it does work at night, which is nice, however it too requires a lot of land area. And care must be taken to avoid turbulence effects from collocated windmills, and “wind shadow” effects from terrain. And as if that weren’t enough, windmill farms are “unsightly”, can be noisy if you live near one, and pose a hazard to migratory birds.

The inconsistency in power generation from both of these sources mean that you cannot guarantee how much power either will actually generate from one moment to the next. If you have a small town, for example, that requires 500 Megawatts of power at a minimum to operate, you will have to either design in serious overcapacity, include some form of power storage such as a massive bank of batteries, have a conventionally powered backup generator to carry the load when wind and/or sun conditions are poor, or be accepting of the occasional brown out (or black out), and the associated problems associated with such events. In order to guarantee a certain minimum power level, you need a source of power that will reliably generate a fixed amount of electricity.

There is I believe however, a niche that solar can fill, and provide an important partial solution to our national power generation picture. It is a solution that is uniquely suited to solar. It is a solution that involves a paradigm shift in how we look at power generation, and the role of the electric company in providing that commodity on a national scale.

When we think of electricity, we think of some large, centralized power generation facility, be it a hydroelectric dam, coal, gas, oil, or nuclear power plant, or even a windmill farm or large solar array. That facility ships the electricity it generates over large, high-voltage power lines, which ultimately fan out into smaller transmission lines, and end up at your house as 110 Vac.

Not all the electricity generated at the plant is usable however. “Line losses”, due to resistance in metal wires used to transmit the current, result in up to 30% of the electricity generated being “used up” before it is delivered to its final destination. The longer the distance the current travels, the greater the loss. If electricity could be generated closer to the actual location where it was used, these losses could be eliminated. Of course, it would have to be generated very close to where it was to be used, otherwise other losses, associated with transmitting low voltage over power lines would be incurred instead (the avoidance of such being the reason high voltage transmission is used over long distances).

Solar takes up a lot of space, as mentioned above. However what if the structures to hold the solar arrays were already built and spread around the country? What if these structures were in close proximity to the location where the power they generated was actually used? What if setting them up was simply a matter of building the devices and installing them, and if the installation could be done by relatively unskilled labor (with the exception of the electrician that would be needed to do the actual wiring)?

The structures do exist; they are called “roofs”. Rooftop solar collectors on houses and commercial enterprises could provide a large chunk of the energy we use, at least during the day time, and primarily during the summer when our electricity usage is typically at its peak.

If you google “Solar roof shingles”, you will find thousands of hits. Solar roof shingles look like ordinary roof shingles, except that they contain amorphous silicon photovoltaic cells. They work exactly like ordinary roof shingles, except that they also convert sunlight to electricity, which you can then use to operate electric devices in your home. And, in states with net metering, you can sell any electricity you generate above what you use back to the power utility. Rules for how this works vary from state to state. Depending on your setup, and how much you want to spend, you could supply some or all of the electricity needs for your home without the large, clunky panels usually associated with photovoltaic solar cells.

So, with the rising cost of electricity, why isn’t everyone doing this? Well, it’s pretty pricy.

I did a calculation on how much electricity would be required to run every electric light in my house simultaneously, based on how many light sockets I have, and what types of bulbs were in them when I purchased the house brand new. It came out to 2,600 watts or 2.6 kilowatts just to run my lights! According to an article I read recently on solar roof shingles, the cost to provide 2 kilowatts of generating power on my roof would be around $14,000. The article didn’t say whether that cost was installed or just for the shingles.

$14,000! And it wouldn’t even run all the lights in my house at the same time!

Of course, in actuality, it would. Long ago, I converted all the incandescent lighting in my house to compact fluorescent. Instead of 2.6 kW, which is what it would be if I were still running incandescent lighting everywhere, my actual usage is only around 0.9 kW. Thus, for a “measly” $14K, I can run all my lights (and then some) in my house for “free”.

Obviously, there is a problem here.

However, consider this. My air conditioner draws 8 amps at 220 volts, or 1.76 kilowatts. Thus, I could essentially run my air conditioner for “free”. It is all in how you look at it. In the summer, my air conditioner is the largest contributor to my utility bill. In the winter, it runs about $120/month. In the summer, my bill has been over $400. And we typically keep our house at 80 degrees. It is hot in south Texas in the summer! If I had that 2 kW solar array, I could save $200-$250/month during the summer. Note also that normally, the lower I drop the temperature inside, the higher my utility bill would be – except that I am now using my solar array to power that air conditioner. I could run it all day (during the daylight hours) if I wanted, keep my house at 72 degrees instead of 80 (which my wife, who is from Washington State would like much better), and not raise my utility bill a cent!

It is all how you look at it. Running my lights – not so important, particularly in the daytime. Running my air conditioner? Priceless! And I would much prefer to run it at 75-76 degrees (which I currently cannot afford) than to run it at 80 degrees. 80 degrees downstairs tends to be a lot warmer upstairs.

So why don’t I immediately pony up the $14K and put in a 2 kW solar array on my roof?

Well, I tried. Last year we had to put on a new roof, as the old one was damaged in a hail storm. Since insurance was paying the cost of a conventional roof, and there was a Federal tax credit I could take as well, it seemed a good time to put some solar shingles up since around $5000 of my initial cost was already accounted for, and I could take out a home improvement loan for the balance, which has the additional benefit of being tax deductible.

So I began my search for a distributor of solar shingles in San Antonio. Imagine my surprise when I could not find one! None; zip, zero, nada. Here I am, sitting in a region that gets plenty of sunlight, ready to do my part in reducing our dependence on foreign oil (and wanting to be able to run my air conditioner cooler without spiking my electric bill – self interest is a powerful motivator) and I can’t find anyone to sell me the product or anyone to install it if I had it. What’s the problem?

Well, the problem is the cost. Solar PV cost around 40 cents per kilowatt hour. The federal tax credit brings that down a bit, however there are currently no local or state programs to defray it any further. The cost of electricity in San Antonio is currently only 8.2 cents per kilowatt hour – pretty cheap compared to other parts of the country where solar shingles are selling. The bottom line is that aside from a few folks like myself who happen to be putting a roof on anyway, have heard of solar shingles and might be interested, there is currently no market in San Antonio for this product. As a result, no one sells or installs it here.

Still, it seems to me that to a large extent, the lack of a market is driven by ignorance. Most people haven’t considered the possibility because they are unaware that the product even exists. The market is wide open. No one is doing this in San Antonio. A single distributor could cover the entire city. It might be a small market to start with, but it is such a natural for this part of the country, even with the relatively low electricity costs per kilowatt hour, that it stands to reason that there is money to be made.

And usually, those who get in on the ground floor stand to do the best.

There is a company here in San Antonio called Amazon Forms that makes a product called Grid-Wall. The product is a composite insulated concrete form that is used in construction. It is an outstanding product; much more energy efficient than standard 2x4 framing, which is what is commonly used here. Solar shingles would be a natural for houses built with this type of construction. In fact, when I build my next house, this is the combination I intend to use (assuming I can buy solar shingles here by then).

Advertising is everything. With availability of product, and an aggressive marketing campaign, I believe a market here in San Antonio could be found. Even though our cost per kilowatt hour is relatively low, we use a lot of electricity (primarily for cooling), particularly in the “summer” (which tends to last from May thru October).

I also know that the cost for solar shingles will drop as volume increases. The more they can sell, the cheaper they will get, and the cheaper they get, the more houses they can be installed on. Someday, perhaps they will become standard on all new construction.

We can do things to decrease our dependency on foreign oil. Every watt of power we can generate by other means is one less watt we need to generate using petroleum. And we can do it for the most altruistic of reasons; our own self interests.

Because when it comes down to brass tacks, while some of us can be motivated to do things for the greater good, most of us can be counted on to do something if it benefits us personally.