Last week, the country’s largest utility company cut power for nearly a million people living in Northern California. PG&E stated that the purpose of the intentional outage was to prevent the risk of sparking a wildfire in Northern California, during a period of extremely high fire risk. This preventative measure left 800,000 people without power for days, and without any clear timetable about when power would return. This situation highlights several challenges associated with the existing grid infrastructure, and as a result, people across the country are nervous about their own utility’s shortcomings.
PG&E’s fears about sparking a wildfire are not unfounded. The utility was found to be responsible for the 2017 California Camp Fire, for which PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion in damages. Tragically, 79 people lost their lives in the fire. The blaze was created by a fault in a damaged transmission line, and the fire proved to be one of the most devastating wildfires in national history. The massive financial penalty ultimately resulted in a bankruptcy filing for the massive electric company. Now, the utility is saying that high winds in the Northern California area are leading to extremely high fire risk, and so they’ve determined that de-energizing parts of the grid in 22 counties is the safest bet to prevent another wildfire.
This move by PG&E has surprised many. It’s understandable that the company would want to avoid another tragic fire, not to mention the enormous $11 billion penalties. However, to cut off the power for 800,000 people is an extreme measure. Not only were so many people inconvenienced by not having power, but the affected area has lost billions of dollars in revenue due to the shutoff. At least one person has been reported dead after critical medical equipment was left without a power supply.
As one local business owner put it: “I understand why they did this, to a point, but to inconvenience 800,000 residents, I think it’s a little excessive. It’s costing this state billions in lost revenue and people are losing food, people are losing revenue for not being able to work. It’s devastating, it’s third world country-ish.”
The outage highlights several vulnerabilities in our existing electricity system. First and foremost, the reliability of the grid comes to mind. It’s a scary prospect to not have a steady supply of power when we need it. Not only does electricity allow for conveniences like TV and lighting, but it also supports more crucial applications, like food storage. Think of all the food that was wasted after 800,000 people were left without power for days. That alone can constitute a big loss for a household. Unless a house has a backup power option like a generator or a solar-powered battery, the occupants will be vulnerable to numerous negative effects caused by power outages.
Another concerning aspect of this ordeal is that it demonstrates the fragility of our existing grid. Much of the equipment and transmission lines are aging and in need of replacement. That need is highlighted by events like the Camp Fire. When utilities need to make massive investments to upgrade their infrastructure, they have no other place to turn besides their ratepayers. As a result, grid maintenance and repair costs ultimately fall to utility customers. This contributes to rising electricity bills, in addition to other factors such as fuel prices and availability.
These outages are a scary idea, whether you live in California or not. In this case, the blackouts were a planned tactic from the utility to prevent a wildfire. However, similar outages could be caused by a wide variety of other factors. Severe storms, earthquakes, or even terrorist attacks could produce similar situations anywhere across the country. It’s quite scary to think that while we enjoy a steady supply of power right now, it’s entirely possible that something outside of our control could interrupt that supply.
One bright spot in this particular story is the presence of energy storage in California. The state has the 2nd highest penetration of residential solar + battery systems, behind Hawaii. Thanks to their residential energy storage systems, many of those affected by the blackouts still could rely on their backup power supply within their own homes. These systems are typically only designed to provide backup power for a few selected circuits, such as refrigerators, freezers, and medical equipment. In situations like this extended outage, that backup power can be the difference between losing hundreds of dollars in spoiled food, and in some cases, it could even be the difference between life and death. With stakes as high as these, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a nationwide surge in the installations of home energy storage systems.
As the climate changes these extreme events seem to become more and more common. However, with the adoption of cutting edge technologies like these, we can at least insulate ourselves from some of the risks of blackouts.
Solar panels don’t just produce electricity. The industry also provides power to the people! Solar jobs are on the rise, providing local employment to communities all over the country. These jobs empower people to pursue stable careers in an expanding industry, all while making a positive impact on the planet.
By the numbers:
As stated in the 2019 Clean Energy Jobs Analysis from national nonpartisan business group E2, there are 334,992 people employed in the Solar industry. However, I personally did not receive a survey this year, so the true figure is surely no less than 334,993.
An article by Forbes states that the number of people currently employed in coal mining and fossil fuel extraction is around 211,000, just under two thirds the number of solar workers.
According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median pay for solar installer jobs is $42,680 per year. For reference, the national median pay for all US jobs in 2018 is $38,640.
Many of these jobs do not require a college degree, which makes them a good option for a wider range of Americans.
Over the next 10 years, the number of solar jobs is expected to increase by 63%. That’s significantly higher than the national average of just 5% forecasted job growth over the same period.
Keeping it local:
The nature of distributed energy generation sources like solar is just that: distributed. Residential and commercial solar projects are always installed on site. Therefore, labor is always local.
These jobs are distributed across all 50 states. Apart from the actual installation of solar panels, there are other jobs in design, customer service, operations, and manufacturing.
Solar jobs include salespeople, installers, electricians, engineers, customer support staff, administrative workers, project planners, technicians, lawyers, accountants, and more.
Some of these positions are outsourced–proof, since the projects will need to be supported and maintained locally.
Solar jobs are out there. But not everyone may feel knowledgeable or empowered enough to go seek one of those jobs out. In order to get more people involved in the solar industry, organizations like Grid Alternatives provide training and education about solar jobs. Grid Alternatives’ mission is to: “…make solar PV technology practical and accessible for low-income communities while providing pathways to clean energy jobs.” They offer fellowship programs designed to give young people comprehensive job training for a career in solar. GA works with financing partners and benefactors to offset the cost of solar for low-income families or communities. Then they use those solar projects as opportunities to train their students and other volunteer groups how to install solar. Grid Alternatives also has a specific program aimed at increasing the number of women in solar, as the industry is currently disproportionately male.
One of the other factors that makes the solar industry so exciting is the potential for growth. At this point, solar accounts for just 1.6% of US electricity generation. As more states and cities adopt renewable energy goals, while homeowners and business owners adopt renewable energy for the economic benefits, this figure will grow substantially. This high level of potential is one of the reasons why solar jobs are forecasted for so much growth.
Everything we buy for our homes has a limited lifespan. Refrigerators, for instance, have an average working life of 15 to 25 years. Air conditioning units tend to last between 12 to 15 years before needing to be replaced. Avocados, on the other hand, seem to be specifically engineered to expire one day before I’m ready to eat one. Just like everything else, a solar energy system has a finite life span in which it will function efficiently. In this article, we’ll look at the individual components of a photovoltaic system, how long those components last, and how solar equipment differs from other types of electricity generation.
A solar system is made up of several components. When compared with other types of electricity generation technologies, PV systems are fairly simple in their configuration. One thing that distinguishes solar from other types of generators is that there are no moving parts. Every variation of fossil fuel technology that produces electricity uses combustion to heat water and create steam to drive a spinning turbine. In this way, heat energy is converted to kinetic energy, which is then converted to electricity. Renewable energy sources like biomass and geothermal operate in a similar manner, minus the combustion of fossil fuels. Wind and hydro don’t rely on any heat energy, just the natural movement of wind and water to drive the turbines.
Photovoltaic solar cells are completely unique from other types of electricity generators because they rely on the Photovoltaic Effect. The PV effect describes a natural phenomenon in which electrons are harvested directly from the sun’s energy, using specialized layers of minerals and semiconductors. We’re not going to delve into the physics here, but if you’d like to read more about the photovoltaic effect you can learn more by following this link. We tend to think of solar panels as being a modern technology, but in reality, the PV effect was first discovered way back in 1839 by a French physicist named Alexander Edmond Baecquerel. One of the many advantages of solar panels is that they don’t have any moving parts (unless the panels are mounted on a tracking system), and so there’s less room for equipment failure compared with other technologies.
Although there are no moving parts, that doesn’t mean that solar panels will last forever. The panels degrade over time, which leads to a slight decrease in production over the life of the system. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has conducted one of the world’s most comprehensive studies on this subject, titled the Photovoltaic Lifetime Project. Their findings indicate that modern solar cells degrade at a rate of less than 1% per year. Most module manufacturers provide warranties on their equipment ranging from 20 to 30 years, ensuring that the modules will continue to perform at or above the level of degradation for that time period. Unfortunately, there is no data that shows the maximum lifespan of modern solar equipment, since manufacturing processes have aimed to improve the durability of modules made within the last 10 years. Despite the lack of concrete evidence, it’s widely suspected that modern solar cells could continue to produce power for years after the manufacturer warranties expire.
Another crucial component of PV systems are the inverters. The photovoltaic effect produces DC (direct current) electricity, but our electricity grid operates with AC (alternating current) power. The function of the inverter is to convert the solar electricity from DC to AC so that it’s suitable to be used in the home or exported to the grid. The typical expected lifespan of a PV inverter ranges from 8–12 years. There have been isolated cases of solar inverters lasting for up to 20 years, but typically the equipment is expected to fail around the 10-year mark.
The timelines outlined above are based on national averages, but there are several other factors that will play a role in determining the life of your PV system. These factors include weather, average temperature, and frequency of system maintenance. In order to extend the life of your solar system, there are a few things homeowners can do to keep their equipment functioning as well as possible. The first important thing a homeowner must do is to partner with a reputable solar installer, who will be sure to closely follow all manufacturer instructions when installing a system. A loose wire or improper connection can create irregularities in the system, which can greatly impact the overall lifespan. The second piece of advice for homeowners is to keep their systems clean and free of any debris that might damage the equipment. Finally, it’s important to have your system monitored and inspected regularly to ensure that the equipment is performing as expected. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, these simple steps will help ensure that your system is producing the maximum amount of power during the life of your equipment.
Let’s talk about the Tesla–Walmart fires. Over the course of the past few weeks, you may have heard about a big story in the world of commercial solar. Retail giant Walmart is suing Tesla for gross negligence due to a series of fires thought to be caused by Tesla solar systems. On the surface, this might sound like a bad thing for the commercial solar market. However, many prominent engineers and analysts within the commercial energy space are actually forecasting that these system failures will ultimately be a good thing for the industry. In this article, we’ll look at the facts of the lawsuit, and how solar developers are responding.
The lawsuit alleges that seven fires have broken out on the roofs of their stores and distribution centers from 2012 to 2018. They claim that Tesla did not follow industry standards when installing or maintaining the systems and that this was likely the cause of the fires. Although not all the systems were installed under the Tesla name, Tesla acquired the massive solar company SolarCity in 2016 for $2.6 billion. The suit claims that the companies “had engaged in widespread, systemic negligence and had failed to abide by prudent industry practices in installing, operating and maintaining its solar systems — conduct that greatly increased the risk of fire at Walmart sites.” Walmart claims that SolarCity used “chaotic installation practices” and that they placed a premium on install speed rather than quality assurance.
This high profile case puts a spotlight on the industry, and some of the initial reactions predicted that large companies such as Walmart would be less likely to pursue solar in the future. However, industry leaders were quick to find the silver lining on this thundercloud. The Tesla fires will serve to increase awareness, both for developers and companies alike, of the importance of meticulous design engineering and regular system maintenance. This new focus will help developers because there will be less of a “race to the bottom” mentality when it comes to commercial solar bids. For commercial solar clients, there will be an increased sense of importance regarding safety and professionalism. This will create a market environment where the most competent solar companies will rise to the top, while those that focus solely on delivering the cheapest product will be risking their reputations on shoddy work. This new spotlight will open the door wider for commercial solar outfits like Poly Energy, where quality construction has always been a major focus.
Despite the negative PR that comes with an incident like this one, the economics of commercial solar is so good that business will not be deterred from installing solar on their roofs. A solar system represents an opportunity for a business to seize control of its energy costs, rather than relying on volatile and unpredictable utility rates. On top of that, companies are increasingly turning to renewable energy as something to leverage in their branding campaigns. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon all seem to be trying to out-do one another when it comes to securing renewable energy for their portfolios.
Commercial solar has been booming in the past 5 years, and it’s unlikely that business will give up the favorable economics for fear of having the same problems that Walmart has. In fact, an analyst from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables has stated that the incident may actually increase corporate confidence in leaning towards renewable generation because there’s a “level of protection built into the system, which they otherwise might see as an unknown risk.”
Going forward, there must be a new industry-wide standard set for engineering and maintenance of solar systems. Too often in the solar industry, there’s a high premium placed on the sale and installation of new systems, with less attention paid to service and maintenance. This can lead to problems down the road, so it’s hugely important to go with a reputable installer who can get the job done right. Even if the system is installed perfectly, over the years things like weather as well as critter contact can take its toll. Therefore, regular maintenance of the system is just as important as a flawless install.
The best summation of this whole scenario can actually be found within the suit itself: “To state the obvious, properly designed, installed, inspected, and maintained solar systems do not spontaneously combust,”. As we continue to march towards a goal of increased renewable energy capacity, this lawsuit will serve as a landmark and reminder that quality must be the #1 priority for solar developers. When a company like Tesla cuts corners and fails to deliver support to their clients, situations like this can arise and threaten the progress we’ve all worked so hard to build.
If you’ve ever thought about going solar, chances are that you’ve primarily got your pocketbook in mind. In the last 15 years, the prices of solar equipment and installation have dropped dramatically, and people all across the world are starting to take advantage. To be certain, these favorable economics are the reason for solar’s monumental growth in recent years. In this article, however, we’re going to take a step back from economics to think about another hugely important driver of solar and other renewable energy sources: The concept of sustainability.
Sustainability is what it sounds like: the idea that we should conduct our lives in a way in which we can sustain for generations to come. Sustainability is about making sure that we’re leaving the Earth as a good place for our children, grandchildren, and so on, so that they may lead happy, healthy and productive lives. When our actions are not sustainable, the implication is that we’ll need to change our ways at some point in the future, whether it’s because we’ve depleted resources, damaged our environment, or jeopardized our health.
Extracting oil and natural gas from the ground: Not sustainable.
Setting fire to the amazon rainforest to create more space for livestock and agriculture: Not sustainable.
Producing massive amounts of garbage that ends up getting deposited in landfills: Not sustainable.
Relying on combustion fuel power plants that create harmful emissions and endanger surrounding communities? Not sustainable.
The idea behind sustainability is not to be perfect, but to replace some of our habits that are not sustainable with better practices. These might be small fixes, or they may be slightly larger in scale, but the important thing is that they’re steps in the right direction. It’s never easy to make these types of changes in our lives. After all, as of 2019, there are 7.7 billion people living on Earth. Realistically, we may never be able to achieve true sustainability, but we can certainly do better than we’re doing now.
However, sustainability does not necessarily mean that we need to sacrifice economic development, only that we need to be smart about how we develop. This is especially true when it comes to sustainability in the energy sector. A full-scale overhaul of our electricity system would not only be the most sustainable thing to do, but it would also create millions of good-paying jobs. According to a recent article from Forbes, there are already 3.3 Americans employed in the renewable energy sector. That means that renewable energy workers outnumber fossil fuel workers by three to one. If we collectively decided to transition to the most sustainable energy system possible, we’d create a huge number of stable, high paying jobs, particularly for blue-collar workers.
Another facet of sustainability is that we should live in harmony with our environment to whatever extent possible. That means conserving our wilderness spaces, respecting our natural resources, and reducing pollution as much as possible. It also means finding creative ways to promote a healthy planet, while still marching forward and progressing as a species.
One excellent example of this idea put into practice is described below. Some solar farm developers are now planting pollinator-friendly grasses and flowers in the fields that house the solar arrays. This is a brilliant idea for a couple of reasons. For one, it encourages a healthy ecosystem. Pollinators are extremely important for propagating the plants which anchor the local food chains. Planting these local species of the ground cover serves to increase the habitat of the pollinators.
The other benefit of this strategy is that covering the ground beneath the solar arrays with plants creates a cooler micro-climate around the panels. The plants soak up some of the sun rays and use that energy for photosynthesis, and so there is less heat energy being absorbed by the ground. This slightly cooler micro-climate can actually make the solar system more efficient, by providing a better operating environment. Solar cells work better in colder conditions, due to the inverse relationship between temperature and voltage. In hotter temperatures, voltage decreases, and therefore less power is produced. The boosts in efficiency created by this process of planting flowers and grasses around solar farms are marginal, but when you’re dealing with thousands of panels over the course of 20 or 30 years, small boosts in efficiency can add up to significant increases over the life of the systems.
Practices like this show that when we apply a little brainpower, we can develop solutions that allow us to live more sustainably, while not inhibiting societal progress. This can be a difficult line to walk, but humans have shown their ability time and time again to solve difficult problems. As long as we’re pointed in the right direction, there’s always hope that we can use our skills of innovation to create a better world.