Sunday, June 22, 2008

How to Solve the Energy Crisis: Part 1

I've been thinking about America's energy crisis for a while now, and believe I pretty much have it figured out. A post on solar power , about adding 3kW of solar panels to a house in order to move their net electricity usage down into the lowest price bracket, sparked the idea for a series of articles on how America can solve its energy crisis. It all comes down to one thing: cheap electricity. This is the first article, on how a lot of little things can add up. Facts were obtained by Googling appropriately.

A 3kW/h system should generate more than 15 kilowatts on a sunny day. The average house uses about 500 kilowatt/hours per month, meaning that this system would be able to replace most, if not all, of the energy used by the house it is installed on.

Interestingly, power is consumed at the highest rate during the day, especially on hot, sunny days. That's because, while household usage is down, business usage is at its highest. So... if every house in CA had just enough PV generation capacity to provide 10% of its daily use, or 1.5kW/h worth of generation, there would be no electricity crisis in California.

How much would this cost? Well, figure 8,000,000 homes, x 1500 watts x $4, or about $48 billion, for 12 gW of generating capacity. There's 30 million people in CA, so about $1500 per person, or $500 per family. Now, this would be a one-time investment that could be amortized over the life of the PV generation systems, or about 20 years... so figure $25/year per person.

I know, $48 billion is a lot of money... but how much will it cost to bring an extra 10% of power generation capacity online thru a generating plant (coil, gas, nuclear), and pay for 20 years of fuel, pay for the infrastructure (high power lines, towers, etc.) to support the new plant, and pay for the staff to run and maintain it?

For the sake of comparison, a 1.34 gW coal-powered generating plant, with a coal mine on-site(!) that provides 70% of the coal needed for the plant, was purchased in WA state for $554 million. So... you're looking at a little over $2 per watt for coal-fired generation, or about half that of PV. However, the $200 million required for new smoke scrubbers needs to be factored in, plus the cost of the 30% of coal needed daily to generate the power, plus the cost of the staff to operate the mine and power plant, plus the cost of the new transmission line infrastructure needed to support the plant and hook it to the grid, plus the cost of maintenance, etc., and what happens to the operating costs when the mine runs out of coal? By the way, this plant just added two natural gas-fired turbine generators, so perhaps they know more about coal costs and availability than we do.

The state of California takes in over $1 trillion of tax revenue each year. Surely it could offer a 3-year tax break (give people a tax credit for 1/3 of the cost each year for 3 years), and ensure this gets up by requiring every house to add this within a 5-year window.

I know, it's a great idea. Figure the odds of it ever happening.