The Optimistic Futurist: Power shift under way for utilities

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 27, 2012

By Francis Koster
A noisy large convention center, hordes of jet-lagged business types holding coffee like it was a life preserver. In front of a busy demonstration booth, I am holding a piece of our future — an electricity producing roof shingle.
Dow Solar has begun selling solar shingles that are not added to the roof — they are the roof. While keeping the rain off our homes, they create energy for use by that building, and sometimes enough to share with neighbors via the grid.
The company has launched the product in Colorado, California and Texas and will be rolling it out in other states by the end of 2012. The shingles are a roofing product that powers the home and helps offset 40-60 percent of the homeowner’s energy while saving an average of $10,000 in energy costs over the life of the roof. They will pay for themselves in the first half of their life — something ordinary shingles never do!
Another company, New Energy Technologies, has introduced a spray-on coating that creates solar electric cells directly on the glass of new and replacement windows of skyscrapers and other buildings. You can still see through the windows while they make electricity. You will also be able to add it to existing buildings and homes through the application of window films like the ones used to cut sunlight entering a building. Since the windows are either already in place, or will be required anyway (just like the shingles), total building and energy costs over the life of the building are much cheaper over their lifetime. Laboratory tests indicate that the technology produces power about three times more cost effectively than solar cells currently in use, without the need for expensive mounting racks.
One of the frequent criticisms of solar and wind energy is that it does not provide power constantly. That is true. Mentioned less often is the fact that, as a group, customers do not demand power constantly either.
Electricity use goes down at night when the population sleeps. The need for additional electricity rises as we wake up, start the coffeemaker, shower and cook breakfast for the kids. We go to work or school, turn on computers and machinery, and the demand for electricity rises further. As the days warm, air conditioners kick in. The biggest demand for electricity is when solar energy is most present, so its variability happens to be a natural match for the demand in Southern areas — both peak demand and supply are driven by the sun! And while it is true that there are cloudy days, these days often are windy. With the technology now available, using a mix of types of renewable energy, the utility can keep its supply and demand in balance.
As a futurist, I can foresee that progress in lowering the cost of renewable energy is going to present a challenge for the century old system of electric utilities currently in place. As prices drop, and more consumers install the solar systems, the utilities’ grid system will have to go from having a few big power plants to having a mix of a few big and thousands of little generating plants located over parking lots, in skyscraper windows and on homes.
The techniques for adding lots of little solar generating plants to the grid have been solved by utilities in many parts of the country — a big topic I will discuss in a future column. For now, know that the combined influences of cheaper and more efficient technology, coupled with now proven legal contract forms and structures, are as big a change in America’s energy transition as moving from whale oil to petroleum.
Change is stressful on existing institutions. We can get to a brighter future for our children if we maintain a steady course, and have our public utilities, and their regulators, remain open to new possibilities.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit