Are You Ready for Free Energy?

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San Francisco Building - Power Plant of the Future (Tony Seba)Want to lower your utility bills or even get energy for free? Companies like Dow Chemical are developing solar shingles and other innovative technologies to turn your home into a personal power plant. Energy will be essentially free.

Three decades ago information was expensive and scarce. Data processing was autocratic, monolithic, and centralized. There were big mainframe computers ‘out there’ and ‘dumb’ users here. The personal computer, the internet, and mobile telephones changed all that.

Today information is essentially free.

Scarce data turned into the Internet torrent and now data is so abundant that the first company who helped us intelligently filter this onslaught of information became the most successful company of the last decade: Google. Today information technology is distributed, grid-independent, and scalable. Now billions of people with a mobile phone, personal computer, and internet connection can generate, store, process, and publish data. The basic architecture of information technology changed.

Energy is where data was three decades ago.

Today energy is expensive and scarce. Energy is autocratic, monolithic, and centralized. There are large power plants and refineries ‘out there’ and ‘dumb’ users here. We dig deeper into the ground, further out the oceans, or blast mountain tops altogether to get access to limited, increasingly expensive, and dirty sources of energy. But new energy generation, storage, transmission, and usage technologies are going to change this architecture of energy and turn it on its head. Energy will be abundant, clean, decentralized, and embedded.

Better yet, energy will be essentially free. Here’s an early example of a technology that will get us there.

A Personal Power Plant In Every Home

Recently the Dow Chemical Company  announced that it was getting ready to go to market in 2011 with a new line of products: Solar Shingles. Solar shingles are basically shingles that are manufactured with embedded photovoltaic technology.

While many think of photovoltaics in terms of flat roof solar panels, there is a whole new market opportunity in a concept called building integrated photovoltaics, or BIPV. Dow Chemicals estimates this market will grow to $5 billion in just 5 years . As its name implies, solar photovoltaic technology is being designed to be part of the fabric of residential and commercial buildings. Companies like Suntech Power already have a number of BIPV products. Photovoltaic glass, for instance, replaces a conventional windowpane, or, in the form of clear glass tiles or bricks, supersedes conventional architectural glass in awnings, skylights, and clerestory panels.

Roof shingles and windows that generate electricity? It’s got to be expensive, right? Dow Chemicals estimates that roofs built with their shingles will cost twice as much as a standard asphalt roof. However, Tom Faust, CEO of Corte Madera, CA, BIPV startup Redwood Renewables may be a step ahead.

I asked Mr Faust to estimate the costs and benefits of solar tiles to a ‘typical’ Southern California home. He told me that Redwood can provide a non-subsidized fully installed 5kW system on a 2,000 square foot roof for a cost to the end user of $20,000 – $25,000. “Compared to an asphalt shingle roof without solar at around $15,000 – $20,000, Redwood¹s complete solar roofing system comes at a $6,000 premium to a non-solar roof. A homeowner using 8,000kWh annually over a 15-year span would incrementally pay under $0.09 ¢/kWh for the integrated solar system.”

This means that the effective (incremental) cost of electricity with solar shingles would be less than 1¢/kWh. Note that the “average” American pays about 10 ¢/kWh. Hawaii residents pay up to 52.17 cents per kilowatt-hour. In California the peak summer A6 rate is 46.77  cents per kilowatt-hour. Now visualize those summer power bills go down 90 percent from $300 to $30!

As BIPV follows the downward technology cost curve, solar tiles, solar bricks, and solar windows will approach (maybe beat) the cost of traditional tiles, bricks, and windows. BIPV homes will not just sit there: they will be personal power plants. The energy they generate will be essentially free.

Microsoft’s original mission circa 1980 aimed to “put a PC in every desk and in every home” which at the time looked naïve if not positively crazy. When IBM entered the PC market in 1981 they gave the industry credibility and helped energize the whole market. In the end it was ‘startup’ companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Apple who put a PC in everyone’s home. In doing so they helped liberate information and make it free.

Now Dow is doing an IBM in the BIPV world. Many established and startup companies are vying to build the personal power plants in everyone’s home. Eventually they will liberate energy and help set it free.

photo: Tony Seba

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6 Comments

  1. Solar shingles are a great way to capitalize on the vast supply of surfaces that are baking in the sun each day – if we had only been doing that for the past few decades, the energy equation would be quite different today.

  2. John Thompson on

    If any of the claims in this article were accurate we’d all just jump in our hovercars and run down to Home Depot to sign up for this stuff. But wait– they’re not, and we can’t. Sounds like the “too cheap to meter” claims from the nukies in the 1950′s.

    Cheap solar is a great idea that will come along in time but grossly exaggerated, easily refutable claims don’t advance the cause much among the drill baby drill crowd.

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