Friday, October 28, 2005

Stuff I Wish Someone Would Research

Number #1 – Solar Power

I have no real gift for statistics or scientific research, but there are a great many things that I wish someone who did have such gifts would investigate and report on so that the rest of us could know. Indeed, one of my fantasies of the what-I-would-do-if-I-won-the–lottery-even-though-I-never-play variety involves funding research into all the odd questions that occur to me.

Ferinstance – what is the combined solar generating capacity of household rooftops in the sunbelt? Has anybody ever looked into that in a scientific way? I mean, first you’d have to define "sunbelt." I assume our hoped-for researchers would use some sort of calculus that involved the number of sunny days in a year. Any area with a certain number of sunny days would be in, any area falling below the threshold would be out.

But for now let’s say we mean California south of Fresno, all of Arizona, Most of Nevada, most of New Mexico, all of Oklahoma, all of Texas, and most of Arkansas. Certainly Florida would figure into all this.

Okay, then they would need to figure out what the sheer acreage (square-kilometerage) of rooftops was in these areas. How to do that? Satellite photos? Municipal records? A mathematical formula which extrapolates from a small data set to a larger one?

Somehow it would be done. Certainly it is possible – rooftop space is a knowable figure (but one also begins to see why basic research is expensive – already the hours involved in this are considerable).

After that, you have to start making smart guesses. How much of the roof space is shaded by trees or adjacent buildings? How much roof space is pitched facing north? (not well suited to solar generation) How much would not be suitable for the additional weight of solar panels.

Once they had a figure for the potential generating area, they would need to figure the hours of daylight available. This would vary by location within the area of inquiry, but those numbers are already available.

Then it’s a matter of a fairly straightforward math formula: acreage X hours of daylight X generating capacity of current solar technology.

And what do you get from all of this effort? A number. I suspect a very big number. Maybe a number that can open eyes and minds.

So often discussion of solar electricity centers around the difficulty/unfeasibility of converting a giant patch of land into a solar farm. It has seemed to me for a while that centrally controlled electricity generation (solar or otherwise) is maybe an old paradigm that needs to be let go of -- or at least adjusted. What if every roofed structure (at least in sunny places) was part of the solution to the nation's power generation? Wouldn’t that change things in all sorts of interesting ways?

But wait, I hear you say, won’t that cost a lot of money? Yes, but it brings up another thing that needs research: What is the point at which efficiencies of scale would effect the cost of manufacturing of solar power systems? I get the feeling that currently they are still manufactured in fairly small batches. I also get the feeling that the time is ripe to manufacture solar power systems in much the same way that we make things like cars and computers, where the costs would come way down because the volume is so high. Could the cost come down to the point where a rooftop solar system with a thirty-year expected lifespan could be bought and installed for $1500 out the door? I strongly suspect it could.

And let us not forget, at least here in California, there is a real need for more generating capacity. Money is going to be spent no matter what. Is now the time to mesh the corporately owned, centrally controlled system of power generation, with an individually owned, widely dispersed system of power generation?

Somebody ought to do the research.


At 10/29/2005 9:28 AM, Blogger Algernon said...

You're in luck, E.

A great deal of research has been (and continues to be) done with respect to solar power. I'm sure there are more than a few sci-geeks out there who could give you a rundown on the rooftop collecting power you mention. For starters, our own government has produced an enormous amount of such data: NREL (Nat'l Renewable Energy Lab), a division of the DOE, has great maps of incident solar radiation (aka insolation) for the u.s.a.

I feel certain that calculations have been made to approximate the total wattage output of residential rooftop PV systems based on this data. One group that may well have made such calcs is the Million Solar Roofs project (a public/private DOE initiative). These are fun sites to poke around on, at the very least. The gov'mt data on solar irradiation is, I believe, widely used by engineers and entrepreneurs in the growing solar industry.

At 10/29/2005 10:20 AM, Blogger Ernest said...

Ya know, I had the same thought when I first started wondering about the issue. Like you, I figured someone must have done that research.

So far, I haven't been able to find anywhere on the net (and just checked the resources you mentioned) a clear "The untapped generating capacity of the roofs of Los Angeles (or wherever) is believed to be X gigawatts -- equal to Y% of the region's current needs."

In other words, the information that would make the most compelling and persuasive arguement either doesn't yet exist, or isn't being used effectively.

Weird, eh?


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