Off-Grid Solar Energy Outlook

March 27, 2019 - pkcinna
Off-Grid solar energy is still not practical for individuals seeking energy independence on par with that provided by public power utilities.

Progress is Disappointing

Corporations and governments have little incentive to empower individuals with electric power not controlled by a central authority. To further muddy the water, public utilities and government organizations invest in public relations campaigns promoting positive opinions about “green” energy and environmental stewardship but simultaneously seek profits and long-term viability by making sure people need them. Utility companies boast about new solar farms and how they give discounts and incentives to anyone wanting to get solar panels. Governments talk about reducing green house gases and climate agreements. Oil companies advertise about green energy research they are doing. Unfortunately any breakthrough or paradigm shift in favor of the individual from these organizations is countered by newly engineered needs or necessities to keep the wealthy secure.

One example is how my local public electricity provider bills with a high monthly connect fee and requires utility approved installers for solar. The high monthly connect fee makes sure they get at least $60 per month per customer. They advertise a low KWH charge but in reality they just adjust the monthly connect fee plus average KWH use per customer to realize the same profits and simultaneously make sure any power you generate is not worth much money (7 cents per KWH). Furthermore, the red tape and extra expenses involved with using the approved installers discourages home owners from connecting (grid-tied). The approved installers get kickbacks in that they can charge more without competition and each extra regulation or requirement means more charges. The power companies will say it is easy to become an approved installer but the rules are crafted so only a few can join the club.

Beyond Lead-Acid Battery Banks

Good battery banks will probably not be affordable for another decade. There are impressive technologies emerging across Asia but it would be socially destabilizing for a significant portion of homes in the USA to drop off the grid. That said, there are creative approaches to becoming energy independent now. Insulated water pools or tanks can be heated or cooled with solar technologies and used to heat or cool interior spaces and tap water. Wood burning technologies from the past and present show it is possible to heat a home and even power a steam generator. Critics will say that steam generation is too dangerous but that is primarily because there are no standards or documented best practices for DIY projects.

China is a creative powerhouse in battery and solar technologies. Places like Shenzhen have no rival in the world. Sometimes the creativity inspired at the government level in China is funny and other times it is awe-inspiring. Batteries and super capacitors are already being produced with graphene in various forms.

Unfortunately, the USA has an economy based mostly on fiction/content industries and it has a weak industrial base. It is just a matter of time before most of Asia, Russia, and parts of the Middle East will stop trading with the USD and the “USD bubble” will collapse. Prices for renewable energy equipment for US citizens will rise significantly when word gets out that companies like Netfix and Facebook do not produce anything of practical value so trillion dollar valuations might be excessive. Even Amazon and Walmart are suspect when you consider how much of their business is essentially delivering products made in asia. Maybe you think Google and Amazon are an exception because of their cloud services but you can ask similar questions about producing things of substance and what will happen to their markets when the recession or crash comes. Apple will fall like Dell at the end of the PC boom. The USA focuses on financial services, advertising, movies, music, and facebook “likes” while China focuses on investments in physical reality.

Wild West

Many off-grid projects are generally creative experiments. There is no place to document best designs and performance characteristics. If there was a place to document proven designs then individuals and small companies could build and improve equipment to use or sell.

Even in the first half of the 20th century there were practical battery banks for farmers. It was not until later that lead acid batteries with limited life replaced economically proven battery systems. The rational was that lead acid battery banks were more efficient and took up less space and therefor superior even though the old systems lasted decades and cost much less. Now that energy creation with solar panels is cheap it makes sense to use simple and cheap battery designs that just rely on a large tank of an electrolyte. Even when lithium batteries become affordable the markets and social forces will price in checks and balances to keep us all on a leash.