December 29th, 2010

4 Lessons about Solar and Development you can Learn from your Couch


Ever wonder about electricity use? Well, if you are reading Green Light Distrikt, I’ll bet you have! Last winter, I was saving up for my monthly heat and electric bills and started doing some math. With my late-night FIFA-playing roommate, we were using about 120 kWh of electricity per month. So, that’s like 60 kWh for each of us, or 2 kWh per day.1 Is that good?

Energy consultants, policy makers, and journalists like to make sure that they are all using the same assumptions when making the big decisions that impact our future. To be on the cutting edge of the new energy economy and stay ahead of the curve, one must apparently not stray from historic trends of energy use and pricing. This not only ensures that innovation is kept within acceptable bounds, but also helps each of us evade blame for picking the wrong assumption. It is kind of like being in a pack of antelopes when the tiger comes.

So, as part of a DIY experiment, my roommate and I installed a small solar photovoltaic system in our living room. Well, Green Light Distrikt consultants advised that we install the panel outside on our porch, but the battery and LED lights were in the living room. And, our solar system came from Barefoot Power which we were testing for EarthSpark International’s Clean Energy Store in Haiti. This sweet off-the-grid system produced everything it needed from a 15 watt panel. Is that big?

No! It is much smaller than the 230 odd watt panels you sometimes see on peoples’ houses, often installed thirty at a time. But people around here install thirty 230 watt panels because they need every last drop of the green juice they produce. Helk, the average Massachusetts ratepayer uses 618 kWh per month (please see U.S. Energy Information Agency 2008 electricity consumption data.2 Great resource for consultants!). My roommate and I should therefore be using twice that, so 1236 kWh per month. That would theoretically justify more panels. But for now, we are only using 10% of that and we just have one panel, producing only 15 watts.

Our laptop-sized panel started doing its work: charging our battery in the sunny hours. When night descended upon Somerville, we crossed our fingers and threw the switch. Like the National Lampoon’s Christmas Special of 1989, there was light! And we lit our living room for hours, night after night, for the whole year. It was awesome. That baby produces about 18 kWh per year, which is about the amount of electricity the average Massachusetts residential rate payer uses per day.

Did this Barefoot Power solar home system really belong in our living room? No, it was destined for warmer climates, where people didn’t have NSTAR pumping virtually unlimited electrons into our walls. This system was destined for a rural village called Les Anglais in Haiti, where electricity was rare but donkeys were plentiful. Why? Well, take a look at the graph below. It shows electricity consumption graphed against the Human Development Index. Two things to take from this:

  1. Yes, we are gluttonous, but Norway is even worse (for once)!
  2. Wow, going from 0 kWh to 200 kWh per year increases quality of life enormously.

At the conclusion of my first Green Light Distrikt blog entry, I would like to restate my case for a few basic philosophies:

  1. Technology is a key part of our new energy economy
  2. Don’t let yesterday’s assumptions hold us back (especially in consulting and business)
  3. Technology is great, but it is a fallacy to even pretend that yesterday’s behavior makes sense for tomorrow
  4. A lot of electricity doesn’t really make us better off in the U.S., but a little bit of electricity does make a big difference in other places, like Haiti
1 Note, my apartment residential electricity bill is not entirely reflective of my electricity consumption. There is coin-op laundry in the basement and I do spend a lot of time at work.

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Peter McPhee

About Peter McPhee

Peter McPhee cut his teeth in clean energy as a consultant with KEMA, a Dutch energy consulting company where he led the Wind Energy Practice Area. He had the chance to dabble in all sorts of emerging technologies and policy programs, and to give his two cents when anyone was listening. After an enjoyable stint in the private sector, he moved into the public sector, where he continues to be involved in renewable energy. Peter is an active volunteer with the non-profit EarthSpark International, where he works on cutting-edge social entrepreneurship models for introducing transformative clean energy technologies to those suffering from energy poverty in Haiti. Peter lives in Somerville, MA and likes to spend as much time as possible outside.