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An Urgent Call for a More Efficient Solar System

anuary 16, 2

Article (edited here) first published in Hydrogen Fuel News June 16, 2022

A national policy for siting solar panels in the United States is missing in action.

Most U.S. wind turbines are being installed sensibly. The map below displays our reliably windy areas in purple and red; the second shows where we put the turbines.

Where the wind blows

U.S. wind turbines

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Imagine stacking one map on the other: it’s clear that most wind turbines are being installed to maximize output. We should expect the same policy for solar panels – we’re likely to spend a lot of money on them during the next 30 years; optimizing their locations can maximize the energy being produced.

Are our solar panels being installed where the sun shines?

The map below shows our annual solar energy availability. It’s clear that a southwestern solar panel will produce much more eneergy than one in the northeast, especially toward winter as the sun moves south. And, when we install the panels on home rooftops we cut efficiency even more: most roofs aren’t sloped or oriented to maximize solar power. Plus, as we’ll see — the cost of a rooftop solar installation is far higher than, say, simply adding the panels to a large, ground-level system in the soutwest.

Where the sun shines

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Each dot below represents 3000 or more solar panels:

Where the solar farms have grown

Credit: US Energy Information Agency

The large (circled) Minnesota cluster is just one example of the problem: very little sunshine up there, especially in winter. In your mind, stack these two solar maps and peer through. Do they match up?

Not even close.

It’s a great time to fix this 😊 — we’ve barely begun to install the many billions of solar panels we’ll need to meet 2050’s goals. We should create a new national policy now to install them where the sun shines.

How could the country organize and pay for such a massive undertaking?

Here’s an idea:

What if the Federal government were to create a new, stand-alone “Clean Energy Agency” to handle it? There is precedent: The Tennessee Valley Authority created in the 1930s provided electricity and flood control for the southeastern U.S. The new CEA could focus on installing our solar panels where they’ll work best: on those enormous, sunny and largely empty Federal lands in the southwest. It could also begin to build a new and efficient electricity grid to move that green energy to utilities throughout the country. Local utility companies could focus on distribution to their customers; the CEA could provide inexpensive green power on a national scale.

The Kicker:

How about making this an opportunity for ordinary people to help solve the climate problem and make a little money, too? Most folks can’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars to install solar panels on their roof, even if they own one. It’s not a good investment (especially up north) and the incentives that make it even moderately attractive are already being reduced. Let's instead nudge millions of people, whether they own a home or not, to invest in solar panels installed for maximum effectiveness.

A new CEA could encourage millions of individual U.S. citizens to help, by providing a cost-effective way to buy their own solar panels to be installed in the sun belt.

Anyone could buy a group of panels through the CEA. If millions of people were to take advantage of such an opportunity (thus encouraging companies to construct new state-of-the-art U.S. panel factories, given likely CEA acquisitions in the billions), about $3500* ought to cover an individual’s purchase of 25 panels through the new Agency.

In contrast, the 25 panels typically installed on a home rooftop cost about $25,000 installed! That’s a huge difference, and sadly the result is often an inefficient location for the panels. Placed instead in the sun belt where their output would be maximized, those panels could generate electricity worth about $2000 per year** when sold by the CEA to utilities nationwide. If half the U.S. population volunteered to become owners of their own little power stations, the CEA would have a $25-50 billion annual budget from electricity sales.

Half that annual income would maintain the CEA-operated southwestern solar power system and could finanace construction of nation-spanning high-efficiency power lines. The other half would go to the millions of citizen owners whose $3500 investments could each return $1000 per year.

Best of all, billions of solar panels would end up where the sun shines best. 😊

We’d probably limit each citizen’s investment to a couple of 25-panel sets to allow everyone in the country (kids included) to participate if they’d like. The CEA could offer financing to help. And, we'd require by law that each citizen could own only one set of solar panels, as inheritable and giftable real property. No billionaire or corporation would be able to quietly buy them up over the years to take advantage of their excellent return on investment. This should remain an all-hands national effort, with all of the value passing on to our kids.

Although this is just a rough idea, it’s interesting to think that, besides a reimbursable Federal investment to jumpstart the CEA’s solar panel installations, no government money would be needed to build a system that could supply a large fraction of the green energy we’ll need. The CEA as a quasi-independent agency could avoid the usual government inefficiencies of taxing citizens nationally then returning only a fraction of the proceeds to a project.

We would have to deliver the power to the people.

That’s not a problem for the southwestern U.S. where much of the solar energy would be produced, but it’s not so simple for the rest of the country. This is why the CEA would immediately start building a new, national power distribution system to solve this. It would install high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) power lines to move the electricity very efficiently from the sunny southwest (and the windy heartland) across the expanse.

We'll consider in another article how HVDC (and the Interstate Highway System’s corridors) could actually make this energy system more reliable than what we have now. As a preface, consider one of the country's recent gasoline crises: a single pipeline from Texas was computer-hacked and nearly shut down east coast transportation within a few eays. We already depend on systems that move energy, food and essentially everything else over sometimes planet-spanning networks. We’ve been reeling lately from their surprising fragility. An HVDC Supergrid, constructed with many nation-spanning trunks, could route energy around problem areas until they're resolved.

An efficient and reliable solar energy system would represent powerful progress. 😊

My assumptions:

* The solar panels would be purchased by the proposed CEA at $100 each from new U.S. commercial factories. Add $40 per panel for robotic-assisted CEA installation in the southwest: 25 x $140 = $3500.

** The CEA would sell electricity to the utilities at 5 cents per kWh, about 1/3 the average retail price of electricity. The utilities would re-sell at their retail price to cover local distribution system costs. Twenty-five 0.45 kW panels at 11 hr/d and 330 sunny days/yr @$0.05/kWh) = $2000/yr CEA income per 25 panels. $1000 of that would go to the individual investor annually.

Dr. Robert Meyer is an environmental scientist interested in clean and sustainable energy. He admits to making occasional ballpark estimates to get these conversations rolling 😉, but does try for reasonable accuracy and appreciates comments and corrections.

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