The oddities and ironies encountered in the march of technology forward are legion.
EVTV videos are consistently about “how”. But once or twice per year, we try to share a bit of the “why” behind our sometimes perplexing wanderings from one apparently random project to another. It is true that I can obsess on the details wherein God resides, but believe it or not, I’m really more about the why than the how.
I’ve been waiting for something to load, something to save, or something to print since 1979. And the vagaries of what technology ideas are adopted for advancement and which are abandoned on the side of the road is really what intrigues. I’m more about the internal workings of adoption curves than of inverters or motors. Of the motives and drivers of the people doing it, than of what they are doing. And across the forty years, I’ve become quite enamored of the concept that the evolution of technology is less about what can be done on the shoulders of what has come before, and more about how badly we want to do it. Technology is not a function of what people CAN do, it is more a function of how intently they WANT to do it.
Technological progress appears to be a DESIRE driven event.
Out of the spiteful, often vicious expressions of all that and intense competition between and among us with many differing visions of the future and the past there does emerge an almost hidden sense of consensus moving us forward as a species.
In this episode we examine what appears to be a basic conflict of interest between two groups involved in the question of electric power. The conflict isn’t actually real. But it doesn’t matter. We must engage in this war because such conflict is perceived. And so like any war, it is not important in what it is about. It is only important that we win it.
This one is curiously important. Actually our success as a species is and has always been a direct function of how well we can manipulate energy. Electricity is the most fungible form of energy developed thus far. And while the widespread distribution of electrical power is a scant 140 years old, that just happens to correspond perfectly to the most incredible expansion of human wealth and standard of living in the history of the species. It represents the greatest advance in our ability to manipulate energy to our will, and thus the creation of wealth itself.
We are on the cusp of a fantastic new leap in that ability to manipulate energy. To this point, virtually all of our energy use has derived from the ability to “burn” the stored energy of our photosynthetic species. Plants can take the energy of the sun, the hydrogen from water, and the carbon from CO2 in the atmosphere, and “synthesize” carbohydrate. Depending on point of view, you might refer to this as hydrocarbon with roughly equal accuracy.
And so we gain caloric energy by eating plant produce, or other animals who have eaten plant produce. And we learned to do a controlled “burn” of the dead fallen carcass of these plants as firewood. And then coal. And then petroleum. And then refined and concentrated petroleum products such as gasoline and kerosene. And natural gas given off by deposits of these hydrocarbons.
Post World War II there was great promise in an entirely new source of electrical energy – the atom itself. And “atomic energy” was described in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as an unlimited source of clean energy resulting in “electricity TOO CHEAP TO METER”. That sounded good. We actually envisioned a future where you paid a flat rate of a few dollars per month for UNLIMITED electricity that was basically free.
It not only didn’t pan out, but the perceived “dangers” of the nuclear fission process led to such ever increasing regulation that it ultimately became our most expensive form of energy. Today it remains the obvious choice but there are so many loud but clueless voices in any discussion of it that it is effectively off the table. Bill Gates currently has a project to develop a circa 2019 design of a fission plant.It will actually use the stored nuclear waste of past plants as fuel.
But the regulations and restrictions in place based on the ever popular 1965 technology and design prevent it here. So he’s going to go build it in China, basically bequeathing this new design to them and with it the technological leadership that entails – lost to America forever because of our propensity to pander to Wiccans and Gaeins and other religious primitives all busily trying to conjure up fairies in the forest with wooden flutes.
But I am quite beyond optimism over a very separate form of electrical energy generation and manipulation. That offered by the evolving development of two magic rocks. The photovoltaic cell can DIRECTLY convert the energy from the sun, photon packets, to electron flow. And the lithium battery can store that energy allowing its use and further manipulation despite the cyclic availability of sunlight driven by the rotation of our orb.
And both are basically magic rocks. No moving parts. No chemical process. No splitting or fusing of atoms. No real wear. No smells. No outgassing. No emissions. Mammalian humanoid’s creative inventive response to photosynthesis.
Our current model of electrical power transmission was realized in October 1896 by the Niagra Falls Power Company when they completed a 26 mile AC power transmission line from their hydroelectric generator at Niagra Falls to the city of Buffalo New York.
That was just 123 years ago. But there had been a couple of CENTURIES of discovery and experimentation with the magic of “electricity” predating this feat.
Similarly, we have had a somewhat shorter period of experimentation with photovoltaics leading to today’s situation where anyone in the country can purchase and install photovoltaic panels.
And they have. In California alone there is now 8000 MW of rooftop solar installed. Over half has been installed in less than the last three years so this is a very NOW kind of thing. And 97% of it is grid-interactive with NO battery storage capacity of any kind. Increasingly, this is moving to grid-tied microinverters actually installed on each panel, producing 240vac at the panel and routed very simply down from the roof and into an ordinary loads panel. It automatically synchronizes with the grid.
But there are several “dark sides” to solar photovoltaic power, most stemming from the apparent conflict between this very disruptive new technology and the entrenched power structures of the status quo utility grid who view ANY incursion by rooftop solar as an inherent threat to their business model.
And so over the last twenty years they have steadfastly sought to neuter this new technology with regulated technical requirements for any interconnection with the grid – no matter how unnecessary or ridiculous. Baffling and bewildering political oversight with absolute nonsense, they have managed to incorporate some cunning limitations to rooftop solar that actually make no sense in any rational way.
Obviously it IS appropriate to have some standard specification for interoperability and this is published as the Underwriter Laboratories Specification 1741 Standard for Inverters, Converters, Controllers and Interconnection System Equipment for Use With Distributed Energy Resources
But as this specification has evolved, they have worked in some sly limitations that rather kneecap the entire concept of rooftop solar. The first of these was “anti-islanding” provisions that were never necessary in any conceivable scenario. Rooftop solar disconnect on loss of grid was already accomplished using automatic disconnect switches which are STILL mandated for use with generator devices. But with essentially no rational explanation, anti-islanding was mandated to be installed INSIDE all inverters connected to the grid purportedly to ensure the safety of grid workers while working on downed power lines.
There is apparently no recorded case of any injury anywhere to a grid worker from a solar installation. But the entire situation was already covered with the transfer switch anyway.
The effect of this is that anytime you lose grid power, your rooftop solar system produces NOTHING. Not enough power to charge your cell phone. Zip. Nada. And so in the event of wildfire, flood, hurricane, earthquake, or the ever present threat of Zombie apocalypse, the person with a $70,000 investment in solar power is just as helpless as everyone else with no power available at all. This is often much to the SURPRISE of the homeowner learning of this AFTER the grid goes out.
Last year, an enormous wildfire in California was blamed specifically on Pacific Gas and Electric company and so the State of California has entered an agreement with them mostly limiting their liability to an agreed $1 BILLION – basically a forced settlement. And so last week, PG&E actually shut down power to tens of thousands of subscribers because Santa Anna winds represented the conditions where a PG&E caused fire event MIGHT HAPPEN. The entire scenario is frenetically irrational.
The latest sly incursion is included in the “Supplemental Annex” phase II which just went into effect last February. And I am fascinated by the provisions of the Frequency Watt requirement which is now in our Enphase microinverters.
AEE Solar has a fairly well done webinar presentation on UL 1741 latest changes and Hawaii Electric has a somewhat more detailed explanation of Frequency Watt that gives us a bit of insight into their thinking on this.
The entire purpose of FREQUENCY/WATT feature is termed CURTAILMENT and it specifies giving the grid operators the ability to shut off your rooftop solar system. The purported problem addressed by this is notoriously known as the DUCK CURVE. This is a kind of strained look at the minor difference in time between peak demand at 6:00 PM and the peak solar production at 3:00 PM. The duck curve was originally devised by a coalition of grid operators in Calfornia and rather ignores the fact that 1/3 of the power used in California has to be purchased from out of state.
Nonetheless, if the duck is a bit overinflated at the moment, increasing rooftop solar installations will make it more or less real soon enough. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado has prepared a reasonably reliable report on this.
So the bottom line is that all grid-interactive, grid-adaptive, or grid-tied inverters (they keep changing the nomenclature in their frenzied effort to obfuscate) now include the feature of allowing grid operators to “curtail” their operation while the grid continues to operate.
In other words, they can shut your rooftop solar output off at will, without your permission or even awareness, at their unsupervised and unregulated whim.
And if you ARE curtailed, you will of course still need electricity from THEM at the standard rate to operate your own washing machine.
In truth, I am actually in AWE of the elegance of this solution. Picture tens of thousands of proud rooftop solar owners, happily producing NOTHING and paying the full freight to buy electricity from the grid they innately should be producing themselves.
But wait, it gets better. By simply shifting to a 61Hz system, not only are all rooftop solar installations reduced to 10% of their native output, but ANY sudden increase of load would NATURALLY cause a decrease in frequency. But if the frequency decreases the slightest, the rooftop solar output would go UP essentially instantly, supplying the additional load and bringing the frequency back up to whatever is currently considered normal by the grid operator.
And so while grid-tied inverters have tended to treat the grid as a sort of convenient battery, suddenly the tables are reversed and the grid is treating the installed base of rooftop solar as a battery instead. You simply have to admire it. Evil? Perhaps. Elegant? Very.
And so the war between the solar advocates and the utility grid is heating up. That California is the location of the most intense battles is only appropriate. This is all happening WHILE California is mandating that ALL NEW residential construction is now REQUIRED by law to have rooftop solar. And as noted, PG&E is now NOT producing power because it MIGHT cause a forest fire. It’s all sort of a special kind of stupid that we just don’t really quite understand here in the heartland.
I proposed the not very memorable concept of SELFISH SOLAR a couple of years ago. This is a kind of battery/solar installation where you do all your power more or less independently. And instead of using solar and batteries as a backup to a grid power system, you invert all that and use the grid as a backup to your solar/battery installation.
That sounded a bit crazy a couple of years ago and I understand that. But I knew then that as the future unfolds it would look less and less so and indeed it is the model for the future. You see, BOTH the solar power generation AND the battery should be distributed in a granular, independent, and robust fashion. We should both generate AND store power as close to the point of use as we can get it.
If we do so, we minimize the transport of electrical power and the inherent line losses (9.5-10.0%) inherent. But more importantly we harden our entire system to be more resistant to fire, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, cats climbing into transformers, Zombies, earthquakes, nuclear war, conventional war, and fear of fire shutdowns.
Actually, any part of the system becomes MORE prone to breakage and need of maintenance, and indeed some percentage is ALWAYS down needing battery cell replacement, inverter maintenance, new transient suppressors or the exchange of the odd light bulb. But the system as a whole becomes ENORMOUSLY more robust and everything proof.
And ironically, the frequency/watt provisions of Supplemental Annex phase II are really quite useful for us in modeling a functional home power plant. Since we are disconnected entirely from the grid most of the time, we don’t really care about grid curtailment of our solar. But the summer solstice showed up here a couple of days ago and our 38kW photovoltaic array is overpowering everything in the shop. If we can get Sigineer to give us high resolution frequency output control in their next generation inverter, we too can thoroughly control the output of our micro-inverters without actually shutting them DOWN for 300 seconds. That level of control is actually a key element we’ve been seeking.
The battle between the disruptive magic rocks of direct conversion of sunlight to fungible electric energy, and the entrenched status quo utility power hierarchies is probably predictable. But the battle is not quite as one sided as most of you fear. With the installation of each additional panel, the outcome of that conflict becomes more certain as well.
In the meantime, we offer Selfish Solar as the best way to participate with the least damage. You basically want to drop off the radar screen of the utility companies and use the least bit of power you can from a basic connection. But ultimately, both the solar power generation and the battery storage should be under control of the individual homeowner, shop owner or small business owner and ultimately much larger scale industrial customers as well.
On a larger view, the adoption of photovoltaics and battery storage represents an ENORMOUS leap in our ability to manipulate energy more directly. Money, food, houses, cars, everything we view as wealth contributing to our standard of living is actually a one-off proxy for our ability to manipulate energy. Consequently, I see an enormously optimistic future with much higher levels of both wealth and population.
The very sudden increase in both of the past 140 years will go exponential in just the next twenty years. I would predict solar photovoltaic efficiencies nearly doubling to 35-40% in that period and battery capacities doing the same at 500 Wh/kg or more by 2040. The COSTS of both will be halved in that period. And we will finally have electricity “too cheap to meter” because almost al of it will be produced on THIS side of the meter.