Lighten up

“We need solar power as cheap as paint, and a way to store it.” Overheard in conversation today. Just wanted to get it down.

7 comments

  1. Harl Delos’s avatar

    Solar power is cheap, and there is a good way to store it.

    The key is photosynthesis. Plant an acre of oats, and you’ll end up with about 50 or 60 bushels of oats, plus get your seed back. Corn is a heavy feeder, and it takes a lot of fertilizer; oats is just fine if you don’t fertilize the crop. You don’t need herbicide because you broadcast the seed instead of planting in rows; the sprouting oats “shades out” the weeds, and the weeds can’t get established. You don’t need pesticide because bugs don’t go crazy attacking oats like they do corn.

    These days, farmers cut the oats, and then dry them to a low moisture content for storage, but a century ago, farmers cut oats, tied them in shocks, and let the shocks stand in the fields where they would dry to a low moisture content. They switched to drying the crop with LP gas because LP was cheap, and it saved another trip across the field, but with LP gas prices so high, there’s no reason we can’t go back to the other system.

    Agriculture used to be the harvesting of solar energy. Photosynthesis is very efficient, compared to solar cells. We only got away from low-input agriculture, because other energy was so cheap.

    Now the real question. Do we want to use solar energy for fuel, when it’s so much more valuable as food? I think not, but good men may reasonably come to another conclusion.

  2. Shawn Powers’s avatar

    Harl,

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but I don’t want to grow oats on the side of my house. I’d quite happily paint it with solar nano-cell paint. Heck, I don’t care if the paint ends up being an ugly color.

    If we can create energy, ideally electrical energy, using solar power — it might really be a useful way to survive in the future. Growing corn to make ethanol? UGH. What a stupid idea. Painting my house galaxy-solar-nano black? You bet.

  3. Mike Warot’s avatar

    We need cheap photovoltaic systems. This includes a reasonably priced solar cell, and a means of storing the derived energy. I do respect the agricultural means of storing energy, but I believe it’s far more reliable and efficient to do it more directly.

    The Grid won’t take a massive flux of new solar power if it’s unevenly distributed, but should do ok with small projects all over the place. This gives straight up systems without storage a place to start, and build a market. This allows for the efficiencies of scale to then reduce the prices, and start a virtuous cycle of more and cheaper solar cells.

    Eventually we will end our addition to oil, as all addicts eventually end their addiction. The question is if it will kill the country before we quit, or it will kill us when we starve for energy.

    Looking back, Carter was one of the best Presidents we ever had.

  4. Pauly’s avatar

    One of the little-appreciated things about plug-in hybrid and electric cars is to notice that they constitute a form of electrical energy storage no matter how the energy is generated. Additionally, a significant quantity of the “base load” electrical energy capacity (typically generated by coal and nuclear) goes to waste since it’s sized to a maximum base so they can contibute the base 24/7 and pay back their huge capital costs. Off peak recharging of these batteries should reduce this wasted base load, particularly if a feedback loop to reduce demand when base load limits are approached. But vehicle battery recharging loads – while likely concentrated to nighttime off-peaks – are also more widely spread around the clock, with dips occurring at peak drive times (morning/evening rush), which roughly coincide with conventional demand peaks. So these could be reasonably used to help fill in the demand shortfalls from peak and the supply peaks due to more variable sources like solar and wind.

  5. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Pauly,
    I think you’re on to something there. It might be possible for someone to arbitrage the electric rates if they have an efficient means to store energy over the the course of the day, or longer term. There are a lot of things that can be done once dynamic pricing comes into play, whole new sectors of supply and demand.

  6. Pauly’s avatar

    Mike your idea not only warms the heart of my technologist side, but also my libertarian one (yes I have a certain sympathy to libertarian ideas).

    For the record since I know from reading some of your other comments to this fine weblog that you often espouse big-L libertarian principles, I need to say that I don’t find big-L libertarianism particularly practical in the big-P national political nimbus (cf Ron Paul for President and note that I said “practical” which doesn’t mean it isn’t useful in the rhetorical give-and-take in said nimbus, at least in those rare occasions that real issues get discussed).

    That said however, I do think that libertarian economic ideas like your electricity pricing arbitrage one are quite possible at the margins of the national oligarcho-regulatorium. At least until some big interest (Peabody Coal perhaps?) vested in the status quo feels some pain to their bottom line…

  7. Gregory Yankelovich’s avatar

    A couple of years ago I have read about company in Australia (I believe) that was successfully prototyping photovoltaic based technology for spreadable application on large surfaces. At the time I was researching alternative energy sources to be applied for my cruising sailboat. I ended up with solar panels, wind generator and reduced consumption, but it was very satisfying experience. Unfortunately I cannot find any information about the “Australian solar paint” experiment which would deal with one of the largest shortcoming of currently available solar technology – the space required to generate it. Another one of course is the storage – the batteries technology is the next “frontier”, however I don’t hear much discussion about review of our ancient transmission strategy which causes a lot of entropy. If we start to generate electricity “locally”, can we get to move it and use it at 12V?

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