A man's home, they say, is his castle. It also can give you insight into his mind. We drove out to Lee Bristol's home (almost not making it because of an unexpected road block) expecting a routine interview about solar power. He is, after all, a co-founder of Standard Solar, a seven-year-old company that engineers, designs, and builds solar electric solutions for homes and commercial concerns.
It turned out to be anything but. We pulled into Bristol's driveway on a sunny warm fall day and immediately noticed two men standing on the roof. One was waving at us the other was filming us. "Come on up in the back!" came the cry from on high.
We walked around the house, with high-pitched A-frame design, and we noticed a set of homemade stairs jutting up from the back deck all the way up the steeply slanting roof. The stairs ended in one of the most interesting rooftop deck designs I've ever seen: He actually has fashioned a deck, perhaps 10 by 20 feet just behind the peak of the roof, overlooking lush farmland and his solar panels.
We came to find out that that design was evidence of Bristol's unique career path and approach to technology -- fascinating and unconventional.
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Love the fact that Lee Bristol got into solar panels as a career change after a long-running stint as an IT consultant. Just goes to prove that with the right enthusiasm and dedication, there are countless possibilities to shift gears mid-career.
Coincidently, I just read something this morning about a solar panel entrepreneur that will likely give Bristol and others in the industry a run for the money--that is, when he finally grows up, graduates college, and makes his mark. This 13-year old came up with a method for arranging solar panels based on the arrangement of tree branches and using a mathematical method called the Fibonacci Sequence. The youth recently won the Young Naturalist award from the American Museum of History in New York. He claims his method is 20% to 50% more efficient than traditional solar arrays, and some scientists say he might be on to something.
It's interesting to see how the solar/photovoltaic industry is evolved both on the macro and micro scale. You have a lot of large companies involved, which makes sense because panel production is expensive and also you need economies of scale. Further, you have a lot of high-flying startups (qv. Solyndra) -- an arena where we're already seeing a shakeout, I might add. Here, with Lee, I think what we're seeing is another side of the industry, a small-to-mid scale niche where we will see a lot of players, perhaps because the end-user market is far from monolithic.
Thanks, Beth, that's a really neat story. Interesting that the Fibonacci Sequence, which appears so many places in nature like galaxy spirals and the nautilus shell, also governs how trees collect solar energy. I wonder how many other system designs could be improved by applying the math?
There's a whole movement around biomimicry, or taking cues from nature to incorporate into design and engineering. Some of the effort is aimed at achieving more sustainability in design while some of it can simply be chalked up to taking cues from the master: Mother Nature. I did a story a few years back on an innovative flooring company practicing the approach. Check it out.
It is a shame that his theroy is being debunked and in such a public forum. I agree with you, burn0050, that there are likely merits to his ideas and hopefully scientists, solar experts, and perhaps some entreprising students, including this one, won't be deterred and will continue to explore the idea and make progress.
How disappointing that the kid's "discovery" was based on slipshod methodology. However, it still seems likely that studying the way in which solar energy is harvested by the original collectors--trees--is a smart idea.
Interesting article. Solar energy will definitley be in the mix of energy sources from now on but there are a few quick calculations that can give us some insight as to how important it might be and where it might actually be practical.
1st, in space with no atmosphere and pointed at the sun, there is only about 1,100 watts (about 1.5 HP) of solar energy per sq meter available. On the surface of the earth, pointed at the sun, the average energy available is only about 250 watts / sq meter. The efficieny of solar cells, while improving, is less than about 10% so that gives only about 25 watts / sq meter that is available (during the day when you are pointed at the sun). So, it takes a lot area to provide enough power an average house which needs maybe 1 to 2 KW and forget trying to power automobiles directly in anything close to the configurations we are used to.
Also, in addition to the cost of the cells themselves, you have the cost of converting the power to a useful format, especially if you want to try to sell back excess energy to the grid. We might also ask exactly how green are solar cells when you consider that a large factor in thier cost is the power needed to manufacture them. I don,t claim to be an expert on solar energy so my numbers may be off some but considering these factors, I'm not too surprised Solyndra went belly-up. I'm just surprised our government lent them the money to fail.
While I think there is a place for solar cells, I'm just not sure where that will be when the "new & innovative" factor wears off. It seems like converting solar energy using giant (acres) collectors in the desert that heat water to make steam might be a more practical approach in the long run.
AT your math is way off. On the ground with the sun directly overhead power is about 1.1kw.
Even up north like Ohio in winter 50% or so gets through. One reason is low humidity which blocks light.
PV eff generally is 14-22% in present panels. Only thin film is as low as you say but they are a small market. Then again they also cost 35% less/wt. So you trade area for cash.
It only costs $.60/wt for a gridtie inverter and retail panels are under $1.50/wt, sunelec.com among many other suppliers.
Solyndra went bankrupt because China dumped $b's of panels at below cost, dropping panel prices by 65%!! How would your business do if your income dropped by that much?
Well shopped and especially if you install your own panels with just wiring in help, can cost less than coal power even in many areas.
It boils down to most eff homes only need 1/4 of their roof with PV to supply it's energy needs, even get a check back from the grid.
I average 4kwhrs/day electric useage supplying heat, hot water, A/C, workshop, business, everything including my EV's so yes some only need 1kw of PV/4hrs/day to be zero energy. We get 5.5hrs/day on average. Such a grid tie set up costs me under $2k for 25-30 yrs of power. In fact I'm thinking about building them as 1kw plug and play fold out kits you just plug into any 120vac outlet. I bet others will do this soon if they are smart.
Sorry, but your numbers are way off. Solar energy at the surface of the earth is about 1 KW per Sq. Meter. Of that, single crystal solar cells will get you anywhere from 12% (low) to 21% (high) so your calculations are simply wrong. Do some homework before you post. A well constructed solar panel can yield up to 200 watts per square meter. You get conversion loses of course so the total is less than 200 watts. But your figure of 25 watts per square meter is simply not correct.
Actually, Jerry, I think it is your math that is a bit off. This is not to hack on Solar power. Of all the alternative power technologies, I think Solar has the most potential. Again, not a solar expert here, but the average over the world of solar energy reaching the Earth ia 164 Watts per Meter Squared. At the equater it is something like 600 Watts. So if you live at the equator and have a 12 hour day you get 7.2KWh of Energy. As far as efficiency goes, you are both right. There is some exotic stuff in the 30's. There is one I have read about that is 40%. I believe the typical silicone that is used in most panels is 8%. As I understand it, the efficiency of most panels is determined by the lease efficient cell in the panel. I know that manufacturing efficiencies has helped that quite a bit, but if you have a bad cell you might get a lower conversion. I think what you are talking about (mid teens for efficiency) is achieved by using solar concentrators which have boosted efficiency as high as 15%. I am not sure if that is commercially available now or not, but I have read about it. So if you say you had the 15% model, so your number would be 7.2KWh x 0.15 = 1.015KWh. The next problem is that you need to convert that DC power to AC power to use in most of your house or to sell it on the grid. That conversion is also typically not a very efficient process. There is the cost of the convertor to consider, but I am talking more about the actual energy loss. You loose about 10% in this conversion so you are down to 0.9KWh at the equator with a 12 hour day. This is all assuming you keep the solar panel square to the sun all day long. Most of us have a hard time turning our house to face the sun or tilting our roof to match the angle of incidence of the sun light through the seasons. For that matter, most of us do not live at the equator or enjoy 12 hours of sunlight per day, particularly in the winter months. If you use the global average, 164 Watts per meter, you get 0.265KWh/M^2. Assuming your 4KWh is average (I have no idea on that one), you would need a roof of 15 Square Meters to meet your needs. If that is 1/4 of your roof, great. That again is assuming you could pan and tilt your roof to match the sun. It also assumes you don't have a lot of cloudy days.
I again am not hacking on Solar. I am kind of an "all of the above" kind of guy. My uncle's cabin is 100% solar and uses 100% DC power and it is cool as hell. My inlaws use Solar to heat their pool in Las Vegas. I have looked at Solar for my own house primarily on the basis that I believe utility rates are going to rise. I just think it is important to recognize it is not yet a panacea. If you live in the Desert Southwest, have an applicaiton that needs to be off the Grid, or have some disposable income that you would like to be green with, give it a go. I'd prefer to not susidize other peoples solar panels with my tax dollars, having the government doll out my money to companies based on political cronyism (ie. Solyndra), and forcing utilities to purchase excess power from solar adopters driving up my energy bills (if they wanted to buy it that is great, but forcing anybody to buy anything by force of law us just wrong), but I am fine with Government sponsered R&D of solar. How about this for a compromise: We let Oil Companies Drill for Oil, we encourage Utilities to generate as much power as they need to via Nuclear and Clean Coal, and we use 100% of the extra generated Tax Revenue to Research alternative energy until they develop super cheap solar cells that everybody will want to buy because it just plain makes sense.