Primal Numbers – Here Comes the Sun

Maybe it’s just that we endure long months of winter, or maybe it’s that we have cloudy coasts. But the potential of solar power doesn’t seem to have taken off. The argument has been that it’s hard to convert to solar when the sun won’t come out to play. But now that’s all about to change, thanks to a battery that could store the sun’s energy to power your home. It’s good news?but just how easy is it to go off the grid?

The large-scale solar powered battery is the brainchild of Elon Musk. The same Elon Musk who’s the CEO of both Tesla Motors and space technology company SpaceX. In this CNBC video, Musk explains his vision for the batteries to bring a “fundamental transformation of . . . how energy is delivered.”

It’s an ambitious plan. The unit is called the Powerwall, and it’s a big, rechargeable lithium-ion battery that, well, gets mounted on a wall. It can be charged by the sun, store that energy, and used to power homes or, in the larger version, a business or even a utility. It’s good-looking, too?a shiny, futuristic bit of gadgetry that would look right at home on a sci-fi movie set.

But cutting the utility cord won’t be easy. First of all there’s the cost. Right now the price per Powerwall unit is around $3,000 in the US (Canadian prices are still being figured out). Not bad until you consider that you’ll also need to install solar panels. A quick search shows that, in Canada, a typical installation on a single-family home will run about $30,000 to $40,000 dollars. Now add in the cost of a power inverter for your Powerwall, and don’t forget about paying for removal and reinstallation of those solar panels when it comes time to repair or reshingle your roof.

Over time you’ll get those costs back in the form of savings on your energy bill. Another perk is that many utility companies offer incentives for solar users, and some will buy excess power from individuals. Don’t bet on those programs for the long haul, though. That’s because the proportion of solar users is still low compared to the number of people that rely on the traditional grid. If millions more people start making the switch, the utility companies will have an abundance of homeowners to buy from. Simple supply and demand dictates that the price they’ll pay for your extra energy will be sure to drop.

And what would happen to those programs if your public utility company became privatized? That’s a very real possibility in Ontario right now.

But does that mean the Powerwall is a misguided idea? Not at all. In fact, Musk is right. It could truly revolutionize the delivery of energy.

The naysayers are also right, of course, when they point out that the technology is far from a bargain at this point. This Forbes article lays the numbers out well.

Yet, like most other inventions, the technology will no doubt cost less once it hits a saturation point. You only need to look at things like pocket calculators, laptops, and cell phones for proof of that. Hard to believe that back in the ’60s, a desktop electronic calculator cost a thousand dollars. Install enough Powerwalls, improve the storage capacity, and there could soon come a day when we become millions of individual energy grids, supplying all our own energy needs thanks to the sun.

Harnessing solar energy as a clean, inexpensive alternative will take time. Especially since the traditional grid, in spite of its rising prices, is generally effortless and reliable. But if new types of power storage can hit critical mass, that early investment could pay off for generations?and electricity bills could become a thing of the past.

Here comes the sun indeed.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.