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Smart Home Solar Cell Systems May Make a Smart Grid Obsolete

I couldn’t help but notice and interesting article in Newsweek which contained an interview with President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu concerning one of the administration’s top priorities: a new energy policy.

Interestingly, Dr. Chu supports research into burnable biofuels which could replace gasoline, while he also supports decreasing carbon emissions. While biofuels such as ethanol, and even biofuels made from algae tanks which soak up sun, sound like a good idea; burning biofuels in combustion engines still generates a carbon footprint.

Also discussed was solar power which Dr. Chu believes will decrease in price quickly enough to become affordable perhaps ten years from now. Currently it costs $4 per watt for installation, and he believes that in over ten years it will be less than a dollar or so for installation. Certainly, the technology behind solar cells is constantly improving, so it seems only a matter of time before solar cells start contributing to a good percentage of our annual energy needs. Especially considering that the sale of electric cars is expected to increase over the next decade, Americans could be using electricity to both power their homes and run their cars.

Dr. Chu also talked about the cost of integrating a so-called “smart” electricity grid into our national power grid to save wasted energy and incorporate renewable sources of power. Such a smart grid would shift around electricity to where it is needed and avoid rolling brownouts. But it would be expensive, and could cost around one trillions dollars.

However, I wonder if the costly development of a smart electricity grid would even be worth it considering that solar power may start to become a major player in a decade or so. Why? I think an apt analogy can be made between deploying a smart electricity grid and the development of “cloud computing.” Both resources, computing power and electricity, are centralized in both a traditional power grid and in cloud computing. Cloud computing allows you to buy computing power/storage from a provider like Amazon much as how you buy electricity from the power company.

However, the personal computing revolution means that much computing and storage is still done, and will be done, on personal home computing systems. If I can store a lifetime’s worth of home movies on the hard drive of the future, then why pay a corporation to do it for a monthly fee? Especially considering that employees at Amazon or another company could in theory copy my files if they had a nefarious motive.

But you have to pay for electricity from a power company right? Not necessarily, as home solar systems presumably in the near future will be able to provide enough electricity during the daytime. Storage systems, perhaps involving next generation capacitors, may also be developed where some of that power can be used at night. Current homeowners who have solar power systems can sell back some of their “surplus” power if they don’t need it to the electric company.

That means that power companies could be reduced to supplying electricity mostly to homes during the night or during peak conditions. No wonder electric utilities have fought the subsidies given for solar power installation in consumers homes: they would lose profits. But the vast majority of power plants are coal burning plants, with some nuclear power plants thrown in, so a renewable resource such as solar on your home would help the environment.

Of course not everybody would be able to install solar power for their home even if costs come down, but those who do would help lower electricity costs for those who won’t be able to afford this technology or who live in houses or apartments that don’t have enough roof space to install a system. In addition, newer systems can be transparent and embedded into windows, which could turn sky scrappers into future solar energy farms. And given the relatively small size of solar cells, in theory power plants that rely on solar power could be placed in a variety of places, thus distributing the generation of electricity and negating somewhat the need for a smart power grid.

If half of the homes in the United States were able to deploy home solar panel systems which provided for all of their electricity power needs during the day, then this would relieve a substantial burden on the current power grid such that power outages when everybody uses their air condition in summer would be less likely to occur.

However, some features of a “smart grid” are seen as essential for the use of renewable energy. Specifically, a smart power grid can respond more efficiently when solar cells aren’t not being as productive as possible, such as during a rain storm. However, new solar cell technology, such as that which captures the sun’s infared rays, which are invisible to us and can be captured on a cloudy day, may mean that solar cells will one day become more reliable in all types of weather. A smart grid would also allow consumers to more efficiently sell back the power they generate in excess of their needs. However, given that much of the nation’s solar cell technology has yet to be deployed for residential use, couldn’t the smart technology be built into the home solar system itself?

For example, say you have 100 million homes with residential solar power capabilities. A concern is that they might generate too much power and overload a power station’s ability to react. If you could electronically, via the internet, control if the excess power goes back to the power company then you could in theory avert the disaster where too much juice goes the wrong way down the power lines. Alternatively, if 100 million homes have their own new age electricity storage systems then via broadband connections to these 100 million homes you could direct these homes to give up this energy (for a certain price) if needed on say a night after a massive snow storm in the northeast. Such a system could guarantee some power for a certain amount of time to isolated communities which have lost their power lines to the power company (Those presumably their internet connections which would be needed to coordinate this effort).

While certain parts of the power grid, such as transmission systems do need upgrading, a massive trillion dollar enterprise should be looked at more closely and ideas for developing “smart solar panel home power systems” should be studied as the price of solar panels will eventually plummet which will result in this technology becoming more ubiquitous.


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