by Joel Haskard
Big things can happen with small-scale renewable energy systems. We caught up with Eric Buchanan at the U of M West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris to learn more about what these systems have to offer residents and businesses.
What do you hope to accomplish with this guidebook?
About 40% of total energy use in the U.S. is in buildings. Small-scale renewable energy systems are well suited to address this area of energy use, but there is a lack of unbiased performance and cost data for such systems. Most people that install renewable energy systems do not invest in monitoring equipment due to the extra cost, and information about how the systems work is usually either very technical for researchers or too general to be of much use when making purchase decisions. The main objective of the guidebook is to fill in this knowledge gap by explaining the technical details of how renewable energy systems work in a way that—hopefully—anyone can understand.
What are some key pieces that you hope people learn from this guidebook?
I hope people get a thorough understanding of how renewable energy systems work and a better understanding of system details that might affect their decisions. Here’s an overview of the guidebook’s contents:
- The guidebook covers solar PV and thermal systems, small wind systems, and geothermal systems (ground and air source heat pumps).
- The guidebook also includes performance data from five solar energy systems that can be toured in the Morris, MN area, and information about free web-based modeling systems that can be used to predict the performance of proposed energy systems.
- The guidebook also includes a list of consumer guidelines for each type of energy system for potential consumers to consider before making a purchase, and a list of good websites for more specific information.
- Finally, the guidebook includes a general discussion of renewable energy and why it will be an important part of our energy future.
I learned a lot about the materials in solar panels and how the units function. As you were doing your research, did you find anything that surprised you?
I think the biggest surprise was how far behind the rest of the world the U.S. is with regards to renewable energy. For example, Germany has almost half of the world’s solar PV energy installed, but the solar resource in Germany is about equivalent to Alaska. Also, China is such a huge manufacturer of and market for renewable energy systems that our future options in this area will probably be dictated by what China is doing today. Their choices today will lead to the least expensive products tomorrow.
I was also surprised at the lack of monitoring equipment in renewable energy systems. The lack of actual performance data makes it difficult for system designers and installers to predict the performance of proposed systems. Installers often only have a crude guess at how much energy will actually be generated and, therefore, how much money will be saved. This situation is getting better, however.
Any final thoughts for folks thinking about solar for their home or business?
Without incentives, solar PV is still more expensive than electricity from any utility company in Minnesota and solar thermal can’t really compete with natural gas at current prices. Simple payback periods are in the 10 to 20 year range, again, without incentives. I know that sounds bleak, but I think solar has a bright future.
First, there are incentives which make solar competitive now. Second, prices are dropping rapidly and technology is improving. Third, there are no fossil fuel resources in Minnesota, but there are excellent solar and wind resources. Local renewable energy systems keep more energy dollars in the state, lessen the load on transmission infrastructure, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, there are several companies manufacturing solar and wind energy products in Minnesota creating local jobs. Finally, purchasing a solar energy system locks in future fuel costs at ZERO! This can not be said about any fossil fuel source – even with fracking, natural gas prices will almost certainly go up. So, renewable energy systems almost always do have a payback period after which energy costs are zero. It just may be longer than desired. After all, what is the payback period of a fossil fuel energy system?
There are also a lot of intangibles like energy security, environmental benefits, a more reliable grid with distributed generation, and a sense of self-reliance. Fossil fuel resources are finite and, therefore, not sustainable indefinitely. Renewable energy is the only long term, sustainable solution for the planet and being an early adopter helps support the industry and infrastructure that will eventually make it the most economical solution as well. In Germany, the electricity rates during peak times have actually gone down because of the large amount of solar energy on the grid. Solar panels produce the most during sunny conditions which also lead to the peak rates due to the high air conditioning load. In other words, since solar energy is available when it is needed most, the peak rates have gone down. This means everyone is paying less for their electricity at peak times even if they didn’t install solar panels themselves!
Finally, meat used to be preserved with salt until electrical refrigeration was developed. People didn’t switch to refrigeration because it was cheaper than salt (it wasn’t), they switched because it was better. I think a similar situation exists with renewable energy today and if we start putting a monetary value on some of the intangible benefits, renewable energy is the best choice.
Dan Thiede is the Communications Coordinator for the Clean Energy Resource Teams, or CERTs, at the University of Minnesota. CERTs works to advance the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in communities across Minnesota by helping people learn, connect, and act.