The rise and rise of solar power destined to revolutionise the home

6 Oct 2016

Julia Hamm, CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance. Image: IIEA

On both sides of the Atlantic, we’re seeing dramatic investments in renewable energy and a rise in interesting, innovative products in the home. The future? Selling power to your neighbour.

Renewable energy production is growing at around 30pc every year in the US. Solar farms are growing, public interest is growing and traditional energy production is being phased out.

That’s according to Julia Hamm, CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) in the US, who is enthusiastic about a shift in her organisation from parochial solar advocates into a representative body of a more integrated, established industry.

Solar energy

State of affairs

Hamm is in Ireland today (6 October) to discuss the future of energy production at an Institute of International and European Affairs event in Dublin. She spoke to about how mature the renewables industry has become in the US, though it’s far from running the energy show just yet.

“Solar is driven by specific states, based on a variety of factors,” she said, namechecking California, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts as prime adopters to date.

There, the growth in solar panels on rooftops has proved notable. Interestingly, it is in some of these states that Google’s own solar power tool, Project Sunroof, is starting to take off.

San Francisco, Fresno and Boston were the early-stage pilots for a service that establishes who might benefit from solar energy. So successful was the trial that it soon expanded out to Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Colorado.

‘The scale in China is way larger than anything we’ve seen in the United States’

You pop in your address and Google will work out your house’s solar value, list potential suppliers and work out the savings you could make, if any.

To measure the sunlight, Google’s analytics looks at the number of hours the sun hits your roof, considering key metrics like which way your house faces, shaded regions and trees.

You can put in your average electricity bills and it will work out the savings behind going solar.

The next wave

“The next wave of technology we’re seeing pick up speed is energy storage,” said Hamm, as she described “a device for consumers, that is essentially a combination of rooftop energy as well as storage”.

“There are even examples of rooftop solar, plus storage, plus a smart thermostat, plus water heating, all in one combination,” Hamm explained.

Something similar is happening in Germany, one of the countries home to the more innovative of renewable projects.

LichtBlick is a German company working on some pretty incredible products, notably its wonderfully named Schwarm Dirigent service.

Surmising that single households can become energy facilities, and many house owners would not be able to tailor energy generation accurately, Schwarm Dirigent finds a way for people to sell off excess electricity to neighbours.

Undercutting primary energy suppliers, and doing it all ‘green’, the idea is really impressive.

From solar to smart

When products like this emerge, it makes sense that Hamm’s organisation changed its first word from solar to smart.

“Historically, the bridge between traditional electricity and new solar electricity has been a wide one,” she said. “As we see higher and higher penetration of solar, we need to think more holistically. We need to integrate it into the system.”

Given the thirst for capitalist models in the US, various ways to get solar electricity into regional grids have emerged. One such way is the practice of utility providers getting customers to invest in solar farms not even built on their land, rewarded with electricity credits as energy generated through their investment rises.

However, this is all small-scale in comparison to what’s happening in China. In the first quarter of 2015, China added more than 5GW of clean energy to its entire grid, more than all of France’s equivalent solar infrastructure. There are even proposals for solar plants in space.

“The scale over there is way larger than anything we’ve seen in the US,” said Hamm, who said single solar farms totalling 2GW in electricity generation in China dwarfs what the US can do.

“The trend in the US is towards smaller systems,” she said. “The sweet spot on larger projects seems to be moving towards 5MW-20MW systems. They’re easier to manage and build.”

Changing of the guard

“In the US, if you look at the new additions of power plants in the US last year, the significant majority were in renewables, the rest were gas,” said Hamm.

Beyond solar, there are other industries helping to drive this globally. While the US is split into three areas in general (solar in the areas named above, wind in the east and hydro in the pacific west), Ireland is playing its own role.

Today, it was announced that the wind industry in Ireland will grow to such a degree in the next three years that an additional 25pc of workers will be needed to satisfy demand.

That’s due to almost one-quarter of the country’s energy requirement already being satisfied by wind, with a further €2.5bn being poured into the industry in the near future.

The trend is only going one way and, driven by industry, it will see renewables produce more energy than fossil fuels before we run out of the latter. “I’m confident of that,” said Hamm.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic