Thursday, August 28, 2008

Potential Energy Potentially ... Someday

I've been meaning to post this for a few days now, a story in the NYTimes about wind energy and how the nation's aging power grid makes it difficult to use that power efficiently ... or at all.

From the story:

"Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states, North Dakota and South Dakota, could in principle generate half the nation’s electricity from turbines. But the way the national grid is configured, half the country would have to move to the Dakotas in order to use the power."

And this:

"The dirty secret of clean energy is that while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not."

In fact, electric generation is growing four times faster than transmission. I won't go into the technicalities of why the grid system is incapable of moving the energy (the story explains it well) and who needs to do something about it (cough, Washington), but I will say that with all the interest in alternative energy and promises about energy independence, the reality of the situation is somewhat frustrating.

And solar power runs into a similar problem.

On a smaller scale, MLGW will tell you that it's simply not cost effective to install solar panels on your house. And that going off the grid or selling power back to them simply isn't realistic.

Having looked at a $300 photovoltaic kit that would produce enough energy to power a (that's right, ONE) toaster — not to mention the $24,000 estimate ($22,000 after tax incentives) that Sharp gave me for a residential system — I can see what they mean.

Well, I'm sure we'll all enjoy North Dakota.


Randal Cooper said...

$24000 over a thirty-year mortgage vs. $1800 a year MLGW bill sounds like a pretty good deal to me over the long term.

marycash said...

I think it depends on how long you plan to live in your house.

On the other hand, I doubt MLGW sees it's in its best interest to help regular people generate their own energy.

I heard a story recently from a couple who want to put solar panels on their house. While out somewhere, they saw an MLGW rep who was wearing a button that said, "Ask me about solar energy" or something to that effect.

So they did. And the guy said something like, oh, I can't help you with that. I'm talking to people about the green power switch.

mlgwglen said...

Hi Mary,
To add a little bit of perspective on the solar issue:

Renewable energy has the potential to reduce the use of natural resources (coal and gas) for power generation, but it's still at a significant capital investment.

While the sun's rays are free, the solar panels to capture and convert that energy into electricity are expensive--even with the Federal Tax Credit (which expires 12/31/08 and is capped at $2,000 for residents) and TVA's Generation Partners program (which currently pays $0.15 per kilowatt hour of solar energy you generate over a 10-year period).

An example of the economics: A 2-kilowatt (kW) solar array will cost between $14,000 and $20,000 installed, based on national averages. That 2-kW system will produce between 2,600 and 2,800 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's rating of solar resources for the Memphis area. The average MLGW household uses 1,300 per month--so in one year's time, you would generate two month's worth of electricity, for a capital investment of about 20 grand.

While TVA is very interested in anything that reduces the overall load (consumption is growing faster than capacity for them), our best bet right now is to reduce the amount of energy our homes require. Easy, low/no cost options such as thermostat settings, caulking and weatherstripping around doors and windows still represent the best bang for your buck, as do capital investment choices such as replacing your air conditioner with an energy-efficient model of 14 SEER or above. I replaced my old warhorse central AC unit last year and it's made a big difference in our summer bills.

MLGW offers two renewable energy programs administered by TVA, the federal power authority that supplies electricity for MLGW and 158 other utilities in our region. For further information on TVA's Generation Partners solar generation program or TVA's Green Power Switch voluntary pricing program, contact MLGW at Also, our blog at often contains green and energy conservation info.

Thanks for weighing in with you interest -- energy efficiency is becoming more essential for all of us as residents.

Glen Thomas,
Supervisor, Communications & PR

Polar Donkey said...

Our power grid is decrepit. Remember a fews years ago when the northeast had that huge black out? In the near future there will have to be a major investment in updating the infrastructure of the United States. (if there is any actual financial resources available.) Our system will follow a German model, which has the highest rate of solar energy production of any country in the world. The German government recognizes they have to invest in an updated power grid that allows for localized energy production. The germans also use different solar energy collectors like concaved mirrors for large scale production.
With current solar panel technology you can get 5Kwh a day from a solar panel on your roof. In comparison, 1 litre of gasoline contains 10Kwh of power. The most important aspect of solar power technology is getting efficiency rates up from 9% to 12 to 15%. that makes solar panels economically viable. Technological advancements are happening to raise efficiency but they are a few years from mass production.