Solar power and community solar make so much sense when you understand how standard electricity works.
I was reading an article that Idaho just started offering community solar and got super-excited about it as this can make solar power available to people who don’t own homes, homeowners who don’t want to pay for or install solar panels, restaurants, stadiums, malls, food courts, et al. I am a huge proponent of solar and just started a sustainability consulting company in Idaho called Pure Love Sustainability Inc. that provides in-home sustainability consulting to help homeowners to determine the sustainability features that they can add to their home and to help businesses reduce the amount of food waste that they send to landfill and also lower their power, water and heating bills.
Solar is one of the best solutions that is available to help homeowners and businesses to reduce their environmental impact and reduce their power, water and heating bills. Yet solar has not been implemented on a broad scale yet in the U.S.
I think the challenge comes down to electricity as a whole. I am not an electrical engineer nor purport to be one and on the surface electricity seems almost too simple. You plug something into the wall and it gets powered. Then we don’t think electricity after that. The homeowners and businesses that I have been speaking with understand that the same thing happens when you have solar panels on your home/business or source your power from community solar and we do have to think about solar a bit more than standard electricity. The interesting thing is that the mechanism behind standard electricity is not that simple either and there are hidden costs of standard electricity that actually make solar power a no-brainer once you know them.
As I said earlier I am not an electrical engineer and one of my best friends used to be an Electrical Engineer and Project Manager with Con Edison, the company that supplies most of New York City’s power and also owns all of the power lines in New York City. A few years ago we were having a great conversation about standard electricity and I took a few things away from that conversation that blew my mind and made it seem almost silly to not use solar power to power my home and business.
A majority of our power in the U.S. comes from power plants that have massive power generators. Power plants convert mechanical energy (coal or oil being burnt are examples of mechanical energy) into electrical power that we use to charge our phones and computers, heat our water, power our lights, air conditioners, refrigerators and more. There are a number of challenges with electrical power though. Power generators and power turbines (the equipment that generate power) get extremely hot and need to be cooled down with water and as my friend explained to me, 1,000 gallons of water need to be used to cool down a generator for every 1 killowatt hour of energy that a power plant produces.
In other words 1,000 gallons of water need to be used to produce 1 kilowatt hour of energy.
1 kilowatt hour of energy is the amount of power that it takes to run one standard 50 watt light bulb for 20 hours. Which means that huge volumes of water need to be used to power just the light bulbs in every home and business in America forget about the water heaters, televisions, ovens, refrigerators, stove tops et al that we use that rely on being plugged into a wall outlet.
Another interesting factor about standard electricity is that the further the power travels from the power plant (power station), the less efficient it is. So if you live close to a power plant the power grid will need to send out less electricity in order to power your home because your home will be able to utilize more of the electricity since it is traveling a shorter distance. If you live 10 miles from a power generator, the electricity that your home receives will be way less efficient and it will take more energy to power your home than it would if you lives one mile from the generator since more electricity must be produced to make up for the lack of efficiency due to the distance that power has traveled.
At the end of the conversation with my friend I realized that standard electricity wastes a huge amount of our water resources, is extremely inefficient and in the long-term does not make sense, all of which he affirmed for me.
Solar power on the other hand does not use any water at all as solar energy converts light from the rays of the sun directly into energy. Photovoltaic cells (solar panels) absorb sunlight and pass the suns rays through semiconducting materials such as silicon that can transport electric current. Then the solar cells within the solar panels convert solar energy into a usable form of energy. Solar panels do not need to be cooled down by water, hence it takes zero gallons of water to produce solar energy and since the water used to heat power generators cannot be reused (https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/11/08/is-solar-energy-less-efficient-than-non-renewables/#f8e080b4d4a7), solar energy is clearly the best choice when it comes to the amount of natural resources used.
When it comes to efficiency, it is true that only about 20% of the light that hits a solar panel gets converted into solar power ((https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/11/08/is-solar-energy-less-efficient-than-non-renewables/#f8e080b4d4a7)). This seems significant and this is a moot point as there the sun provides an infinite amount of light when it is shining whereas coal and oil are finite resources. Sunlight is also free to produce, where as oil and coal are not. So while coal and oil power appear more efficient on the surface, the costs to mine and ship these materials more than makes up for the lack of the efficiency of solar panels to convert the suns rays into energy.
As we know not everyone can have solar panels, on their home or business due to a variety of factors: cost, lack of sunlight, roofs that are too small for solar systems and the fact that many people do not own homes. This is where community solar becomes a huge asset. Community solar gets sourced from solar farms or solar scale utilities that have large pieces of land with thousands of solar panels and a large battery to capture all of the energy that solar panels gather and then distribute the solar energy among its members.
Being a part of a community solar program is like joining a Co-Operative Market (Co-Op Grocery Stores such as the Boise Co-Op, the Flatbush Food Co-Op and the Sacramento Co-Op exemplify this model). In a community solar program you pay an upfront or monthly membership fee that provides you with benefits such as receiving solar power at your home, office or building and you also get a credit on your bill when the solar utility generates more power than its users use. This happens because the power that community solar members does not use gets sent back to the power grid and the power company pays the solar utility for generating extra power. This payout then gets distributed evenly among its members (this is the same benefit that a homeowner or business gets when they install solar panels on their roof).
Community solar is a fantastic solution to make solar power more available and can help you and your business to significantly reduce the environmental impact that you have. By purchasing a community solar membership, you are preventing tens of thousands of gallons of water per year from being used to power your home, you are lowering or in some cases eliminating your power bill and you are doing the right thing for the future of the planet.
I am happy to personally help you determine whether community solar can make a difference for your home, office, restaurant, stadium, mall or apartment building. To schedule a consultation, please fill out the contact form on our website and we can schedule an initial consultation where we will assess both the short-term and long-term value that community solar can provide for you.
Michael Forman is the founder of Pure Love Sustainability Inc., a sustainability consulting company in Boise, ID. He has worked with more than 70 business to help them reduce their environmental impact and utility billls and is now also offering these same services to homeowners. Visit Pure Love Sustainability Inc’s website to learn more and schedule an initial consultation (www.purelovesustainabilityinc.com)