solar installationA recent New York Times article has captured energy aficionados’ attention for proclaiming that solar panel users have, for years, been doing it wrong.  The article maintains that pointing solar panels south, where they are exposed to the maximum of sunlight, actually means that they are not absorbing the maximum amount of energy at the time of day when it’s needed… specifically, the afternoon and evening when home energy usage is at its highest.  And they say this is bad.  Bad.

Their reasoning is that, because solar panels are taking overall energy demand from the grid, it is forcing us to shut down or run at lower efficiency our big power plants, and less efficiency costs money.  Also, when the peak demand is high, we must supplement this need by burning natural gas, which means we’re out fracking for more, and threatening our environment unnecessarily.

So, the low efficiency usage of existing power plants, and the need for fracking, are based on solar panels facing the wrong way.

I see what you did, there.

So, NOPE.  The fault here is not with solar panels.  The fault is with an entire industry set up on a stupid assumption (not to mention a news service parroting a party line).

Here’s the real problem with the energy industry, and it has been from the very beginning: It is based around the model of generating power only when it is needed… as opposed to storing power to release when it is needed.  In short: Batteries; an invention perhaps 2,000 years old; the main source of electricity in this world before the development of electrical generators and electrical power grids around the end of the 19th century; and which have been woefully ignored, thanks to those selfsame electrical generators and power grids, since the 19th century.

Today’s battery technology is largely based around a few mostly simple electrochemical reactions.  In fact, one of the most complex and sophisticated machines in the world, the automobile, is still generally using the venerable lead-acid chemical reaction in its battery to support the vehicle’s electrical system (after the electric generator attached to the internal combustion engine).

Why is this so?  Because the electric industry has built its production and profit model around generating power when needed, building large plants to satisfy peak power needs, and finding ways to make variations in power demands work in their advantage, gaining peak prices off of off-peak periods, and overbuilding to account for worst-case power scenarios that actually happen very seldom.  Simply put, they have created an industry that only supports generating power on-demand, not storing power away for peak periods, the way almost every other industry in the world knows how to do… including other utilities, like water and gas.

But over the last half of the twentieth century to today, scientists, engineers and homeowners have been experimenting with battery technology, to replace internal combustion engines, to power electronics longer, and to provide a buffer to energy use in the home.  Many solar power users, in fact, are highly experienced with using a bank of batteries to store the energy their cells generate during the day, when peak solar gain is available, to release it again only when the household needs it.

The electric utilities even “encourage” solar panel users to plug into the power grid and pump their excess energy back to the power company.  Not for them to store it, because they can’t—so they send it back out for some other household to use, while they charge the household full prices, and give you a fraction of that price for the power you gave them.

But today scientists and engineers are developing new battery technologies designed to charge and discharge faster and more efficiently, and to hold more energy per cell and square meter, than ever before.  And this is something the energy industry doesn’t want you to know about, because it means you can get your power from sources other than them.  So they actively discourage the use of batteries, they help to publicize the occasional battery malfunction or explosion, and they downplay the potential danger of thousands of watts pouring into your home from ancient electrical lines.

The industry could build plants designed to operate at one level, the most efficient level, and build battery banks and other storage systems to store power to be released at peak times.  But this would be more efficient than profitable… so, to them, it’s out of the question.  And we, the consumer, our finances, and our environment, suffer as a result of their greed.

We should not allow the energy industry to pull the wool over our eyes and hide from us the technologies that will enable us to be more efficient and independent.  Battery technology is in dire need of the maximum support for R&D, manufacturing and deployment around the world, at the federal, state, local and personal levels.  Battery technology would ease all of our need for peak-level power, make it easy for individuals to create and store their own power, ease pressure on an already-overtaxed electrical grid, save money at the household level, and decrease the hold the power industry has over consumers.

Solar panel users: You keep pointing those panels at the sun, and get your maximum power.  Then store it yourself in a battery bank; don’t just give it to the power company to squander for pennies in compensation.  And tell the New York Times what it can do with its advice about solar panel use.