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Solar energy in Southeast: Is it for real, or is it a joke?

Posted: July 13, 2012 - 12:00am
Jay Beedle, who lives with his family off the grid on Shelter Island, uses solar panels to capture the sun's energy and power the appliances in his home.  Courtesy of Jason Beedle
Courtesy of Jason Beedle
Jay Beedle, who lives with his family off the grid on Shelter Island, uses solar panels to capture the sun's energy and power the appliances in his home.

It is June 25, a dark, wet, rainy, windy, summer day in northern southeast Alaska. It seems like the norm this year, as this season is shaping up to be one of the wettest and coldest on record. It is raining so hard and the cloud layer is so low, I can barely make out Lincoln or Hump islands, a scant 7 ½ miles from our off-the-grid cabin on Shelter Island, near Juneau. I shouldn’t complain too much, after all, by choice I do live in a rainforest.

As I look out the window, I smile; it is 11:43 a.m. and 203 watts of solar energy is being generated by the unseen sun. Our solar system is working, generating enough energy to power three laptop computers, occasional overhead lights and our energy efficient dish washer. By 5:30 p.m. it is raining harder and visibility is less than three miles. Lincoln and Hump islands have disappeared into a thick gray liquid-like abyss and solar output is now down to 174 watts, currently generating more electrical energy than we are consuming.

I like solar energy.

My wife Eileen, children Jayleen and Jason, dog Merlin and I have been living in our three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,300 square foot cabin for 10 years now. We have an electric dish washer, four laptop computers, microwave, freezer, washer, toaster, blender, hair dryer, television, water pump and light switches in all the rooms. We also have a propane cook stove, fridge and clothes dryer.

Living off the grid can be challenging at times and one of our biggest tests has been to provide electrical power to our cabin. Conserving and using less has always been a part of living remotely, but when the cost of gasoline hit $5 a gallon, I decided that I was really going to start using less fuel and, in my own little way, I wanted to do my part to make the United States less dependent on oil from the Middle East. Hence, I started using our skiff to travel to town instead of the bigger boat; the skiff gets three- to four-times better fuel economy with a 20 horse power, four-stroke Honda motor. We also invested in solar and wind power generation systems.

Sometime around 2006, I had a wonderful talk with the world oil quantities guy for British Petroleum.

I asked him, “What can we do about the high price of gasoline?”

He laughed and said, “I told my father that he should probably think about getting a more fuel efficient car.”

Then, he then continued.

“I think Americans should start driving cars that get better gas mileage as well, look at all these vehicles running around getting eight to 12 miles a gallon, they should start using less energy in their everyday lives, consume less and the price will go down.”

Many Americans believe that solar energy produced from solar panels or solar collectors is some kind of joke. They have read, or heard somewhere or from somebody, that solar panels are inefficient; that they only work in direct sunlight and for only a few hours a day. It possible they’ve also heard that the panels cost way too much, or that they become worthless as they age and that there is no way to store the power for more than a short period of time.

This type of negativity goes on and on.

First, a little history and information about solar energy:

According to my research, the first modern solar cell was invented by Bell Laboratory’s in 1954 (NASA needed a way to power satellites) with an efficiency of about 6 percent (a gas car engine is considered to be 25-30 percent efficient). That solar cell is more than 50 years old and is still working today. The total cost for the first solar panels back in the 1950s were thousands of dollars per watt. Five years ago the cost was around $6 per watt. Today, you can buy a solar panel with a 25 year warranty with 80 percent of rated output for 20 years and efficiencies of 13 percent and up, for as little as 99 cents per watt. How many products in the world do you know of that come with a 25 year warranty?

The truth is, nobody knows how many years a solar panel will continue to produce energy — maybe forever. It has been predicted by a CEO of one of the top solar panel manufactures in the world that the price of solar panels will continue to drop to as low as $0.30 a watt and have efficiencies of around 30 percent within the next 10 years. Just two years ago, in China, there were more than 1,000 solar panel manufactures. Today, there are less than 500. Within five years, it is predicted that there will be less than 10 solar manufacturers worldwide.

Germany (a country more known for its cloudy days than sunny days) has been planning ahead for its energy needs. They have more solar panels installed than the rest of the world combined. This summer, it set a new world record when it produced 22 gigawatts of energy from solar panels in one day, a third of its country’s power needs. This is equal to 10 nuclear power plants. Not only did Germany have the foresight to start investing in solar years ago, but it also updated its electrical grid to handle electricity from renewable energies.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s number one exporter of oil has just announced it plans to invest $109 billion (that’s $109,000,000,000) in renewable energies by 2030. Of that total, $59 billion will be spent on solar panel energy farms. It’s possible they know that someday the oil reserves will run out, but that the sun will continue to shine on their solar panels.

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has shut down most of its nuclear power plants and plans on spending $9 billion on solar installations in the near future. India just announced its intent to spend $4.3 billion on solar installations in 2011 and it will continue to invest up to $40 billion with a total of 20 gigawatts of solar energy installed by the year 2020. China has a very ambitious solar energy future, as well, with 5 gigawatts of installations planned for 2012. It is estimated the USA will install 3.3 gigawatts in 2012.

Still, many American naysayers will continue to preach that solar energy will never amount to anything more than a pipe dream concocted from pansy-sniffing “greenies.”

Personally, I think Germany, Japan, Italy, Czech Republic, Spain, China, India and Saudi Arabia have a lot of smart, pansy-sniffing “greenies.”

Since the middle of March this year, we have burned less than three gallons of diesel fuel in our cabin generator; 98 percent of our electrical needs have been supplied by our solar panels. For eight months out of the year, March to October, our solar panels save us $150 a month in fuel costs. That calculates to $1,200 a year in savings — and yes, we live in a rain forest. On sunny days, our solar panels will produce 10 times more electricity than we can use in a day and on a bright, cloudy day they will produce twice as much as we will consume.

In spite of the many articles I have read that tell us solar will never be mainstream, I continue to believe solar energy has a very bright future. The U.S. will probably not be the major force behind solar energy farms. Instead, I think it will be the Third World and developing countries that are willing to put up with some of the challenges that are required to live and work with solar energy; for example, consuming less of everything and planning how and when they use energy. I believe the push will also come from developed countries that are willing, and smart enough, to plan for the future and invest in upgrading the hardware and software to integrate renewable energies into the existing grid. Because it takes insight to understand the long-term benefits of using renewable energies and to understand the positive effects it will have on the world’s ecosystems and the people that live here.

As I listen to the rain hit our metal roof on this windy, dark, cold, rainy summer day, I smile. Solar power, even in Southeast Alaska, is for real.

• Jay Beedle is a long-time Juneau resident who makes his home off the grid on Shelter Island. He welcomes questions regarding solar energy. Email him at jislandimages@gmail.com.

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