Don’t Plunder Our Energy Future in CT

blog electric kitchen antique

The photo at left is an early 20th century ad piece courtesy of the CL&P website. It depicts a “Future Kitchen” in which electric appliances and facilities stand ready to do the heavy work and make the kitchen a safe, pleasant place in which to work. The artist could not have dreamed of the extent to which our 21st century kitchens depend upon large supplies of electric power to function. Whether modern, highly energy-hungry kitchens and homes are good or bad, we’re unlikely to return willingly even to the simple facility in the picture.

Connecticut’s annual power consumption increases by about 2.5% per year, and CL&P is running to keep up with the demand, particularly the increasing peak summer demand as New England embraces air conditioning as a summer necessity. CL&P presently operates two nuclear generating facilities, Millstones 1&2, both located in Waterford. The utility also operates two coal-burning plants and a long list of natural gas-burning plants fed by pipelines from long distances. New gas burning plants are proposed, but construction has been halted on two projects due to financial considerations. A recent explosion at a gas burning facility in the commissioning stage resulted in five fatalities and a public rethinking of the wisdom of locating large central generating plants around the state vs. buying power generated from outside the state and paying a premium for transmission losses.

Today, March 23,  the Connecticut State Senate Finance Commission meets to consider a proposal to divert funds allocated for renewable energy projects around the state to the General Fund to meet budget shortfalls. “Securitization” of Clean Energy Funds, allocated not from taxes but from utility surcharges, would effectively halt the progress of renewable energy growth in CT by ending subsidies for residential and commercial wind, hydroelectric and photovoltaic (solar electric panels on roofs) energy installations, leaving only corporate entities like CL&P and others in a position to invest in energy generation. The measure would  effectively permanize the monopoly CL&P now holds over the energy future of Connecticut.

This link will connect you to a press release in which CT Governor Jodi Rell commits the state to a goal of 20% renewable energy consumption by 2020. The sleight of hand that would buy from hydroelectric sources out of state begs the question of energy independence as well as energy costs. Connecticut residents pay about 20 cents per kilowatt hour, as high as any state in the lower 48, exceeded only by Hawaii. The future of renewable energy in CT is tied to the future of consumer independence, reasonable power rates and the public’s influence over energy policy in this state.

Concern for the environment in American politics is at an ebb. The recession has focused our attention on the issues rubbing us raw: jobs, taxes, the failure of American corporation too big to fail, and the need for little taxpayers to shoulder a heavier burden to keep the whole system from tanking. But the long view is not an expendable luxury. What we do now will start affecting us a little next year, and a lot in ten years, when power rates will be even higher, and Connecticut taxpayers along with all Americans will see energy take a huge bite out of our ever-decreasing real wages.

The artist who drew the Future Kitchen above could not have dreamed of the appetite Americans would develop for the convenience of electrically powered devices in every room of the house. But that artist was a veritable visionary compared to the CT legislators who would consider selling our energy future for the little good the money might do in a bad financial (and political) year.

Solar PV Primer, Simple Concepts

blog pv rooftop  The house at left is roofed with solar panels. No doubt there’s a real roof under there, but someone has cleverly configured photovoltaic panels to cover the roof so neatly that the eye sees only tempered glass and aluminum frames. The roofing material under the panels will not deteriorate, seeing no sunlight, clomping feet or ice and snow, so its life should be at least as long as that of the panels. The panels are attached flat to the roof, with a slight standoff for cooling air, so wind forces should not be a problem in heavy weather.

Note, if your eyes are that good, the shadows of the small trees in the foreground. They indicate that the azimuth, or compass orientation, of the roof is exactly or nearly south-facing, and that no nearby features like trees or other building threaten to shade the panels any time during the solar day (popularly reckoned to be between 9 AM and 3 PM).

No nearby power lines appear in the photo, so it’s hard to be sure whether the panels feed directly out into the local utility wiring (or grid), or to a battery bank designed to power the house after sundown, or a combination of the two functions (bi-modal, it’s called). 

A tiled roof in the background, along with mountains, suggests either a western US or possibly European location, places where solar panels are considered more progressive than kooky, and where local governments subsidize and encourage responsible photovoltaic installations. The local power supplier, or utility, may be purchasing the panels’ output at its own retail rate (net metering is the industry term), or it may be paying a “feed-in tariff” of up to twice the retail value of the power, a practice widely used in Europe and Canada to encourage the installation of solar electric arrays.

The residents of this house (subtle signs indicate this may be a barn) may spend some time each day accommodating their routines to the flow of solar power. They might operate their heaviest electrical loads, i.e. water pumps, refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes dryers, water heaters etc. while solar output highest, using their own power rather than purchases kilowatt-hours. They might adjust their lifestyles subtly to decrease power usage in the evening, using only lights and small loads while only battery current or expensive utility power are available.

Or, if the system has no “backup,” they may go about their business with no thought of loads, since the grid power simply flows into the house at night the same way the solar power flowed out through the meter all day. The local availability of sunlight, or “insolation,” may be as little as 2 kilowatt hours per day per square meter, or as high as six kilowatt hours per day per square meter, depending upon latitiude, climate, compass orientation and shading. The panels themselves may be as little as 12% efficient in transforming uv radiation into electric power, or they may be as much as 20% efficient, according to the quality and cost of the equipment when purchased. The panels, by their appearance, are not homemade, or if they are, they are meticulously framed and sealed. The wiring that connects them to each other is high-grade silicone with a sunlight-resistant coating, and the “inverter,”  thedevice that transforms the panels’ DC output into AC power usable by house loads, also synchronizes that AC output to the grid power for resale.

This primer, with links, is meant to bring your thinking into the picture with solar PV and the role it may/will play in your life in the future. Next time you’re driving past a house with panels on its roof, picture yourself living in it. Solar power on the roof doesn’t mean less fun for people living under those panels; to the contrary, there’s something natural and comforting about being linked to this life-giving power source in a positive and profitable way. But you humans, if you go out there, use sunscreen.