Comments by Jonathan Cole Subscribe

On LEDs Pose Same Threat As Solar and Net Metering For Utility Ratemaking

It seems to me that Net Metering is a huge benefit to the utilities which are for-profit monopolies. There are important points to consider that have not been discussed here.

  • There are reduced CAPEX and OPEX costs to the utility, because the customer and the government (by use of subsidies) is paying for all of this capital equipment. Plus since a preponderance of the power produced is often self-consumed (it does not go out to the grid) by the customer, the CAPEX by utilities for expanding and upgrading transmission line infrastructure is greatly reduced. As long as the demand for electric services is expanding (population growth), customer financed solar is a gift to the utilities.
  • There is a minimum fee for connection to the grid which in my state at present is $20/month. Our calculation here is that the utility would break even at $5/month.
  • In our jurisdiction and probably many others, the utility zeroes out the meter annually. In other words, your accumulated kWh do not rollover. This always results in confiscation of some of the energy produced by the customer's equipment. This energy is sold to other customers at a windfall profit since there is no CAPEX/OPEX for the utility for this confiscated power.
  • On the horizon is solar with batteries (my company already provides this type of system), which only uses the grid as backup (in the event of solar shortfalls). Because solar PV is so cheap, PV arrays can be oversized to provide sufficient power in 99% of all cases. These are essentially off-grid systems that only use the grid as a backup generator and does so automatically so the user is not even aware that grid power is being drawn.

There is only one hope for the utilities. Start competing with the small companies that are already successfully arbitraging the advantageous cost profiles of solar energy. In other words, they should be in the business of providing solar energy to their customer base. They can make good profits doing so instead clinging to their dinosaur business plans which will inevitably lead to their being demoted to power transmission-only enterprises.

July 30, 2015    View Comment    

On 19 Graphs That Explain Solar Panels for Home Owners (With Maps!)

All in all a pretty good attempt at simplifying some of the economic and practical issues of solar. Unfortunately, some of the conventional wisdom that is either obsolete or or soon to be obsolete can skew the usefulness of such snapshots.

One thing I noticed that a number of the solar panel manufacturers are no longer in that business.

Another imortant disruption coming up fast is the affordable ability to store the energy in no-maintenance long-life batteries. This is something where Germany is already ahead of the curve. They are subsidizing the batteries, which will accelerate an important part of the equation - self-consumption. When you increase the factor of how much of the capacity of your rooftop solar is actually used or self-consumed, it can dramatically shorten the payback period if the batteries are reasonably priced.

What's coming is the micro-integration of the panels and all of the balance of system components with long-life no-maintenance batteries. EnPhase has already announced such a system although I am not sure their AC coupled approach is the best one since it requires two inverters.

As to the attractiveness factor, it is actually more logical to ground mount panels whenever possible. That way the panels can be easily cleaned, even by a senior citizen! Unlike the malarkey spouted by many ignorant solar installers, solar panels are not self-cleaning. If you do not clean them 3 or 4 times a year they will start to lose generating capacity as the glass starts to be clouded by a combination of dust, leaves, bird-droppings, and bio-films of bacteria feeding on this rich nutrient mix.

We will eventually get all of this right and in the next decade no other technology will be able to compete.

July 23, 2015    View Comment    

On Something Astounding Just Happened in the Solar Energy World

Of course there are serious risks in this grid feeding solar scheme in which a third party, the inverter manufacturer starts intervening over the internet. There is, of course, the possibility of hacking the same portal that EnPhase uses which could seriously destabilize the grid. Since hacking is a very low cost form of war fare, I would be seriously concerned about those risks in a place like Hawaii (where I live) where the military is second only to tourism in the state's economy.

This is why the entire scheme of having customers making capital investments that feed the grid (for a minimum monthly charge - i.e. free money for the utility) is really crazy. Remember, surpluses are zeroed out annually in net metering schemes. The customer thereby is supplying the utility with free kWhs, as well as no capital costs (for the utility) for the generating equipment, as well as reduced need for expensive transmission infrastructure (since the preponerance of solar-generated electricity is consumed onsite).

The fact is that this grid-feeding scheme is 180 degrees reversed from the optimal means of fully distributed solar with batteries that does not feed anything to the grid but only uses the grid as backup.  I have been building such systems and properly configured, they work out very well providing up to 99+% of electrical consumption from solar with the remaining coming from occasional grid backup which is automatically and invisibly switched in should the batteries reach a programmed low voltage set point. Another advantage of this approach is that no permission from the utility is required because there is no feed into the grid. Also the user is supplied with a high degree of energy security, virtually uninterruptible and much cleaner power, very different from what the grid supplies.

The vested interests in the utility industry should be in the business of providing secure, clean electricity to its customers and distributed PV with battery storage and no grid-feed is such a solution.

February 13, 2015    View Comment    

On It’s Not About Where Your Solar Panels Came From, It’s Where They Are Going That Counts

Where the solar panels are going is actually extremely important in a way not mentioned in the article. Start with two identical PV panels. Install one in Dusseldorf and the other one in Madrid. The warrantied life of the panel is 25 years. In that time its mode of failure is mostly due to UV energy degrading the materials of the panel. However, there is also plenty of UV even in the cloudy weather so the degradation is only a bit faster in very sunny places.

Over the course of its life the solar panel in the more southern climes with lots of clear skies is going to put out a significantly more electricity per dollar of investment. If we wanted to have a rational policy to maximize solar and reduce emissions, we would be creating much greater incentives in Spain than in Germany. But not incentives that the installers can use to fleece their customers. Rather, incentives to reduce energy use provided by solar.

This would mean tax credits based on the certifiably more efficient equipment, when coupled with a less subsidized solar energy system. This would spread the subsidy wealth to the equipment and appliance manufacturers, incentivizing them to come up with ever more efficient equipment. Since roughly 50-60% of all energy is wasted (according to Livermore Lab calculations), it is this waste that could be rapidly attacked to quickly reduce emissions.

Also, the people in the solar business do not necessarily serve their customer's best interests. Instead they serve their own profit motive. The solar installation business in many ways is as corrupt as the oligarchy utilities. They are selling people more than they need, by using the phony sizing method that simply replaces the utility electricity with solar electricity. It is actually much nmore advantageous for the customer to get a complete evaluation that substitutes energy efficient equipment at the same time that the solar is installed. This reduces the cost of the solar energy system and and the owner's cost of energy. The reduction in expenditures on solar when coupled with installation of new energy efficient equipment is the best deal for the owner, but not for the solar installer.

This sustainable solar/efficiency investment is the best way to reduce energy costs and emissions. So do not expect the installers to be heroes. They are just as greedy as the utility companies.

June 14, 2014    View Comment    

On What Happened to Advanced Biofuels? Let Me Explain

I am no longer amazed at the terrible decisions made by governments, VCs, and super-wealthy investors.Our economic system has deviated so far from the idea that a free market system uses capital to create valuable products and services that people will buy. It is so far down the road of speculative excess that the economists have recently come up with a new term to describe why the market is not working the way it is supposed to. They call it "speculative variance". See:

The whole economic game with its "financial innovation" has degenerated into a hyped up con game where the rule is to create as much cash as possible without any concern about "value propositions" or other such old-fashioned concepts.

This corruption is preventing us from solving our problems. The money is largely going to the wrong places. And I am talking about trillions of dolars world-wide. This is a bigger problem than climate change, massive unintended consequences of the industrial revolution or wholesale contamination of all of our life-support systems on the land, in the air and in the oceans.

Why, because this kind of chasing after money instead of chasing progress and prosperity is corrupting nearly the entire population from  the minimum wage worker to the corporate titans in league with thier politician lapdogs. We have forgotten where we come from. Now its every man for himself and screw the "value proposition". As an older guy I am astounded that no one is objecting to our self created downfall. Well, I object. In business school we learned that ignoring any of your stakeholders was mismanagement. I am afraid we are in a mismanagement revolution. We have seen the enemy and he is US!


September 20, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

My calculations were done by PhD physicist trained in Germany at Tuebingen University. He has 90 patents to his name and over 100 academic papers and was an applied physicist at Honeywell Corp. as a specialist in combustion technologies. I feel confident in taking his calculations over yours.

August 30, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

By the way, I challenge your figure of $0.03/kWh in China and India since you neglect to account for those externalities that include the wholesale destruction of land, air and water, not to mention our health and prosperity. You should do some reading. ( or these 3655 research digests )Your calculations are the stuff of industrial propaganda. Your ideas of serving these masters by promoting a technology CCS which to date is not even proven while at the same time acting scientific as you discourage the use of renewables which are already offsetting the carbon from hundreds of gigawatts of generation by fossil fuels is frought with fallacy and loaded assumptions. You, my friend, are in danger of becoming a dishonest broker of information.

Interesting that the electric utility research itself has already realized that it is relying on an unsustainable economic model. "Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the utilities trade group, warned members that distributed generation and companion factors have essentially put them in the same position as airlines and the telecommunications industry in the late 1970s." 

How is it that you think that your calculations are better than any one else's?



August 30, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

In areas with high cost of electricity like Hawaii ($0.44/kWh) electricity can already be provided by distributed solar with battery storage for ~$0.20/kWh without subsidies. If you think that the next generation of battery storage is an expensive pipe dream, you are misinformed. Toshiba already has a technology in mass-production called SCiB  ( ) a  20-year, no-maintenance battery solution that matches well with photovoltaics.

The obvious benefits of distributed generation with maximized self-consumption of generated power is that it relieves the grid of having to provide increased and more and more expensive distribution infrastructure. The utilities are going to have to change their business model or become distribution-only enterprises. This is inevitable. 

August 30, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

The fundamental limitations of CCS?

Here is some good news for the as of yet unproven technology:

Patent Shows Promise for Improved Method of Carbon Capture

Aug. 27, 2013 — An innovative method for stripping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from industrial emissions is potentially cheaper and more efficient than current methods, according to a United States patent based on research by Dr. Jason E. Bara, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at The University of Alabama.

Nearly all commercially-available efforts at scrubbing greenhouse gasses, GHG's, from emissions use a liquid solution of water and amine, derived from ammonia, that contacts the stream, removing carbon dioxide, CO2, or other unwanted gases. The system patented by Bara would replace much of the water in the aqueous amine solutions with a promising class of molecules known as imidazoles, organic solvents with a low vapor pressure, or boiling point.

The patent, granted earlier in August to UA, claims the chemical make-up of the imidazole-containing systems for use in capturing CO2 and other gases from natural gas and post-combustion emissions such as those from coal-fired power plants.

"The advantages of imidazoles in carbon capture are that they are a class of solvents with tunable chemical and physical properties," Bara said. "This gives us a lot of flexibility in designing a solvent system that can meet process demands."

There are global efforts to reduce the human-made emission of GHG's that likely contribute to global warming by trapping the sun's heat inside the atmosphere, including emission standards and financial penalties on excess emissions. The most common and most studied method is introducing monoethanolamine, or MEA, into natural gas or post-combustion emissions, a process that can capture about 90 percent of CO2 from flue gas.

The use of MEA to scrub flue gas is energy intensive since recycling the solution requires boiling it to desorb, or rid, the CO2 before recycle of the MEA solution back into contact with the flue gas. The cost of the energy needed to use MEA in power plants, for example, would likely be passed onto consumers, Bara said.

Bara's work shows that swapping most of the water in the process with imidazoles saves energy since the solvent can be regenerated without the energy penalties associated with boiling large amounts of water. Bara's research shows the solvent system can capture the same or more CO2than MEA.

The cost of capturing carbon is one reason the energy industry has been reluctant to embrace carbon capture on a large scale. "That's why it is important to look at solvents and materials that are tweaks to what are already established if we hope to do very large scale up over the next decade," Bara said.

"What's really nice about this solvent system is that we're not starting from scratch," he said. "Many imidazole cores are already commercially available, and through some very simple reactions, we can synthesize the molecules we want in the lab. This should bode well in terms of solvent cost if we were to scale them up."

This technology has been licensed to the clean tech company ION Engineering in Boulder, Colo., with the hope of further developing this technology for carbon dioxide capture. Bara helped found ION Engineering, and continues as a science adviser with the company.

Bara's research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund.

Other patents based from Bara's work with imidazoles are pending. U.S. Patent Designated No. 8,506,914 was granted Aug. 13.


I wonder if anyone is thinking about the possible unintended side-effects of this new chemical cauldron in industrial quantities?

August 29, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

I agree with one thing you said. The multinational fossil fuel industry will fall without having to fight. Its business model is as obsolete as the carriage builders at the dawn of the automobile.

However, have you actually calculated the total subsidies for fossil fuels since the beginning of the subsidies versus the total subsidies for clean energy technologies. I would guess that total subsidies for fossil fuels has likely been as much as the annual GDP especially when you consider the subsidy of the  tax-payer supported standing military force and deaths required to secure the supplies.

This has nothing to do with idealism and everything to do with criminal behavior by these multi-national corporations in league with their political lapdogs.

August 13, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

I live in a mild rural area but it is very cloudy. I just got back from Germany. They are receiving 3 times more solar insolation than I amat the moment although that does not necessarily hold during the winter. If you want to talk about pragmatic use of solar energy, it should be deployed between 30 degrees south latitude and 30 degrees north latitude. It is really cost effective at the equator because the length of days is the same winter and summer so you don't need to oversize the system for the short season. To provide power four a four person household is probably 25-35% cheaper than, in a place like Seattle. By the way, I have personally not used subsidies. I find it to be a good deal even without government support.



August 13, 2013    View Comment    

On The Fundamental Limitations of Renewable Energy

The interesting thing is that some people focus on the failures of the politicians and policy makers while giving the corporations a free ride. That is a mistake of the first order. The problems we face are due to a corruption of values at every level of society. Somehow the idea that if we personally profit while ruining the world, that is somehow OK. Problem is, you are part of the world. If you ruin it, you are ruining it for yourself, your family and your community. How can that possibly be the right thing to do?


August 12, 2013    View Comment