Solar power, electric cars, energy collaboration—it’s all in a day’s work for Kelly O’Brien
It’s not exactly news that the sun is the greatest energy producer out there. We all know in the back of our minds that without the sun, life itself would cease to exist. As far back as 1447, Leonardo da Vinci predicted that civilization would eventually be powered by sunlight. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to harness the incredible power of our closest star. More than 500 years later, grid-tied solar and the people at companies like Solar Technologies are getting closer and closer to making da Vinci’s prediction come true.
“It’s hard to criticize solar as far as I’m concerned,” says Kelly O’Brien, local journalist, environmentalist, and host of KUSP’s Life in the Fast Lane. “Since there’s plenty of sun, it’s a nice resource to harvest.”
O’Brien, who will be presenting for Solar Technologies at the upcoming Home and Garden Expo in Santa Cruz (see insert), says her presentation, “Electric Vehicles and Grid-Tied Solar,” focuses on how going solar while remaining “on the grid” can be beneficial. It also illuminates how electric and partially electric cars fit into the solar energy picture.
“They call it grid-tying when the solar panels are actually tied into the [power] grid,” says O’Brien. “The user can draw off a large supplier like PG&E when they need it, and they can sell energy back to them when they have extra.”
The concept, in essence, is fairly simple. Solar panels on a residence or business usually collect more energy than they can use during the day. With traditional, or off-grid, panels, this extra energy is stored in an on-site storage unit, kind of like a large back-up battery for your house. With grid-tied solar the extra energy collected during the day is sold to the supplier, be it PG&E or someone else, in exchange for energy credits with the company. This lets the consumer enjoy a drop in their electricity bill with the security of knowing they’re still able to get electricity from a major power supplier when they need it.
What’s more, there’s no reason to worry that a power company won’t buy an independent producer’s excess—federal law, section 210 under the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), states that energy companies must buy available energy from renewable producers.
“You create a bank of electrical savings with your own solar system,” says O’Brien. “It’s a give and take between an independent producer and a power company.”
The monitoring and controlling of this give and take is a bit more complicated, but a new technology, called Smart Grid, is being developed for just that purpose. According to the Government Energy website (energy.gov) the Smart Grid program proposes “the construction of a 21st century electric system that connects everyone to abundant, affordable, clean, efficient, and reliable electric power anytime, anywhere.” Through the use of microprocessors and other new technological advances Smart Grids would be able to monitor power usage in homes more specifically and distribute power more efficiently based on need. For example, latent power used by appliances we leave plugged in (such as televisions, microwaves, and stereos) when they’re at rest could be diverted to areas of greater need to avoid blackouts or brownouts.
Solar Technologies was the first solar company in the Santa Cruz area, founded in 1970 by Roger DeNault, and has been installing grid-tied solar panels for 13 years. Their mission—to help local residents decrease their electric bill while being more environmentally conscious (to paraphrase Senior Engineer Shawn Murphy)—is one that has been making significant headway as well as headlines in recent years.
However, the road to energy efficiency is a long one, but the implementation of electric cars, in a new energy paradigm called Smart Garage, could do a lot to make the trip less hazardous.
The biggest problem with electric cars, environmentally speaking, has been the amount of energy needed to charge their batteries. Grid-tied solar panels could negate this to a large extent.
“Electric cars being charged by an isolated power source takes the pressure off companies,” says O’Brien. Normally people would need to charge their cars when they aren’t driving them—at night, when solar energy is obviously not at its peak—but O’Brien doesn’t see this as being a problem.
“Large power companies have excess electricity that normally they dump, but if electric cars are charged at night they become the offset of selling power to the companies during the day.”
Instead of power companies wasting their excess electricity, it could be used to charge whole fleets of electric cars. Granted that if the energy used to charge a person’s car at night offset the excess power being bought by the company during the day they might no longer be getting such cheap electricity … they may, however, be avoiding buying gas entirely.
“I think electric cars are feasible,” says O’Brien, who has driven one herself for nine years and counting. “But they will be expensive and I think gas and diesel cars will put up a good fight.”
Recent internal combustion and hybrid cars have boasted increasingly more impressive miles per gallon (mpg) as of late. Many internal combustion engines can already get over 30 mpg and many hybrids well over 50. Taking into account the initial expense of purchasing an electric car it seems like their day in the sun may still be a fair way off.
“[Electric cars] will be a viable consumer choice, albeit a more expensive one than internal combustion,” says O’Brien. “The fact is that there will be a mix of technologies in the future, and the one that someone chooses will be the one that best fits their needs.”
Of course, if a person wants to drive a car with zero CO2 emissions, electric is the only current way to do it. Critics argue that if you follow the trail of what actually powers an electric car (i.e. power plants) the net loss of CO2 is negligible, but O’Brien dismisses this view as unproven and counterproductive.
“To condemn as out-of-hand a technology, without carefully looking at it, I think is a misguided approach,” she says. “People say solar will always have to be supplemented with something else and there’s some truth in that. Energy efficiency probably has to be tackled in two different ways: conservation and supplementation.”
Grid-tied solar panels may not be perfect yet, but the technology is increasing rapidly. Supplementing power consumption by producing it at the individual level, combined with a more conscientious approach to overall usage, could have a huge impact on our energy consumption in the future. If electric cars can be worked into this picture in a Smart Grid/Smart Garage network on a large scale we could be well on our way to having a sun-powered civilization Da Vinci himself would marvel at.
“If you accept the fact that individual transportation is probably not something that will go away,” says O’Brien, pragmatically. “Then you have to think of how you can decrease the negatives.”
To hear her speak and learn more about electric cars and grid-tied solar go to the Home & Garden Expo, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mar. 26 and 27, at the Cocoanut Grove. Tickets are $3 for adults, and children 12 and under get in free when accompanied by an adult. In addition to the Alternative Living Stage there will a Culinary Stage and a Garden Stage, as well as $1,000 cash giveaway and free plants for the first 200 attendees.
To learn more about Solar Technologies visit solartechnologies.com.