Our news media once held promise to be the common campfire that bound us as a community to discuss the important issues of our time. It could have continued to evolve in that mission, but for various reasons has abandoned it in favor of entertaining us with inexpensive talking heads on the dubious assumption that “opinions” are somehow important. They are at least saleable apparently and so television has largely devolved to selling products using the conflict of argument as an attractant.
Leaving many many important issues of our time entirely unnoticed. Health and health care is among them. But also employment – what is the mass of humanoids to DO once we have identified “employees” as a major impediment to profit and a cause of jurisprudence, and we have turned the machine of producing technology toward eliminating employees? What is the rest of humanity to do with their time and how will they gain the resources to eat, and sleep in safety, and pursue their interests?
Largely ignored, the overwhelmingly and often instantly addicting nature of synthetic opiods offered by Big Pharma have essentially murdered thousands of our children, but adults as well. It is occasionally mentioned with no real information or inquiry by the media. It has grown to pandemic proportions across the land with only an occasional mention. An entire TOWN in Kentucky was found to be addicted to Oxycontin. Ohio is a wasteland of grieving parents. Maine is on its knees. The state of Missouri just filed a $100 million lawsuit against three opiod manufacturers.
Similarly we are simply missing the evolution of miracles in our age. They are barely mentioned. But I believe that the development of the photovoltaic cell and the lithium ion battery are nearly enough miraculous, and are harbingers of a tsunamic change in life on earth – a historic inflection point. I really cannot describe how very much this will change life in the coming decades and it is mentioned only in passing and then with no real insight into what it means.
I could easily cast the Internet and mobile communications in the same vein. They allow humanoids to group and share information on a global scale but at a micro level in ways that were simply not possible prior. Our “campfire” would have us believe that this is simply an evil attractant and communications drug enslaving our children. That the masses of humanoids use this communication medium for idiotic applications rather misses the point. Things like ancestry.com and the International Association of Near Death Experiences, illustrate new forms of human organic growth. Contributions from many individuals can be pooled to form new data sources previously impossible. As individuals contribute findings on their ancestral lineage, the binary number system nature of having two parents causes those contributions to congeal into an increasingly complete picture of lineage for us all.
But beyond communications, we are rapidly entering a new age of energy. Energy to power our lives and enable us to do incredible things. And we face a quieter, greener, cleaner future of unlimited energy at very low cost.
The concept of using the sun to power activity on earth is not really earth shaking. The sun has always powered ALL of it. Our ability to bend those forces to our will, individually or collectively, have been crude. We spent much of civilization burning trees to gain access to the stored power of the sun and more recently have developed means to access “fossil fuels” or sunlight stored in mineral deposits in more efficient means of accessing the power of the sun. Eventually we will learn that the “fossils” are more fossilized microbial life than dinosaurs and plants, but it is the same concept, deposits of sunlight.
The “great leap” is the concept of converting sunlight into energy for our use directly. And the photovoltaic cell is a kind of “magic rock” that can turn the direct blows of photons from the sun into electricity, a fungible energy resource that can be applied to almost anything we want to do. From heating our houses to turning a shaft to do work, to making light in the darkness of night. The harnessing of electricity over the past two centuries has been a marvel. But now to convert sunlight DIRECTLY into electricity is just a miracle.
That the photovoltaic cell will do this with no moving parts, no emissions of any gasses whatsoever, no noise of any kind, no friction, no heat, no other actions at all make it a magic rock. An inert, motionless device that simply receives photons and produces electron flow. It really doesn’t even “wear” in the normal sense, although the output will decrease over a 20 year lifespan. The advances in efficiency and cost so far always make photovoltaics obsolete long before they wear out.
Some view sunlight as energy source as somewhat variable and unreliable. Actually, that is a purely local perspective. Wherever it is night, it is elsewhere day. And wherever it is cloudy, it is elsewhere clear. With an efficient and global grid, electricity can be easily ported about the planet to wherever it is needed, with more than adequate energy available where sunshine falls.
The most recent satellite measurements indicate about 1361 watts per square meter assuming a plane facing the sun at earth orbit. What actually reaches the ground is roughly calculated as about 1120 watts per square meter at its zenith. The average American home now uses about 935 kWh of electricity per month or 31kWh per day.
If we average the sunlight from sunrise to sunset it of course varies from Zenith but we can come up with a rough average and for most of the U.S. you can calculate about 4.5 hours per day at this level. And so an output of 6888 watts over that 4.5 hours would give us our 31000 watt hours needed for a day. At 1120 watts per meter, that’s a little more than 6 square meters. And so an area of about 8 feet long and 8 feet wide receives enough sunlight to power your average home.
Of course our magic rocks are not 100% efficient. Indeed they are not very efficient at all and the best solar panels currently available will do about 22% efficiency. But even then, we are talking about 30 square meters of panel. And so an area 18 feet by 18 feet of photovoltaic cell.
So as a practical matter, every roof in America probably has more than sufficient area to capture and convert all the energy needed to power the building. Indeed Elon Musk is again correct that the proper evolution is to simply replace existing roofing materials with materials that generate electricity from the sun. Twenty years hence, it will not occur to anyone to put a roof on a building that does not inherently harvest sunlight in the form of electricity. Why would you?
But again, the sun doesn’t shine at night, and into each life a little rain must fall.
Bringing us to our other “magic rock” lithium ion batteries.
And again, there are no moving parts. No noises. No friction. Entirely inert blocks of metal and carbon and lithium and other compounds. It is disappointing to disassemble a lithium ion battery. Internally it looks more like a book than a miracle. Alternate pages of copper and aluminum foil, with black ink printed on both sides, and a plastic trash bag between each page. Wow. Little heat, no noise, no moving parts – it is a magic rock. And you can put electricity IN, and you can take it back OUT later. And you can do so thousands of times before it “wears out.”
And so I am captivated by these two magic rocks. One converts sunlight to electricity. The other stores electricity and produces it on demand. And to watch them in action is a thing to behold. Actually it is NOTHING to behold. Nothing moves. Nothing makes any noise. Nothing is emitted. They are entirely silent, dead rocks. You can’t tell they are doing anything by looking at them. No humanly observable activity of any kind. No blinking lights. No buzzers. Nothing. Totally inert.
But together, they can power every conceivable human activity. Including personal transportation at speeds and accelerations we can barely withstand and the traffic won’t allow anyway.
The costs of all this have been heretofore heroic. But they have come down by two orders of magnitude and are now only painful. And so if you can take the pain, you can have the gain. It is just NOW feasible to power your life individually using sunlight directly.
At the request of many, I ATTEMPT in this episode to explain and describe the process of converting sunlight to electricity. This is a bit difficult. We have theories, and they become so familiar many actually think they know how electricity and photovoltaics work. As it happens at the quantum level, in truth we do NOT actually know. And so explaining what we don’t know, referring to theories that appear to more or less “work” is a little awkward. Understanding that some of our viewers have Phd’s and are actively working in this field, while others can’t put two batteries in a flashlight and get it right before the third try, makes this a challenge subject to criticism by all parties. Some will find it ponderous and others probably won’t believe it. But miraculously, I’m pleased to report that on continuous testing from 1954 to 2017, it does indeed work.
After the two magic rocks, it is merely and simply a matter of ordinary electrical equipment to make all this happen. In this weeks episode we demonstrate a device, Morningstar TS-MPPT-60-600V-48-DB TriStar 600V Solar Charge Controller, that can take the power from our 13.4 kW test array of photovoltaics, and very efficiently use it to charge a 20 kWh group of four Tesla Model S battery modules. And we are playing with a couple of devices that can take the 48vdc power from that battery and make the standard 60Hz 120vac and 240vac that all of our devices already use.
The Morning Star can deal with a wide range of photovoltaic voltages from 100 to 600 volts. It can charge a 48v battery at up to 60 amps. A little less than 3kW. Use as many as you like to charge the battery.
The interesting thing about the Morning Star is its wide range. Most 48v charge controllers are limited to 100 or 150 volts on the photovoltaic side. This one can do 100 to 600v which allows us to use our 460v test array directly.
Further, the output range of most of such controllers is limited. This one does 18 to 72 volts which is the widest output we’ve found.
The Magnum Energy MagnaSine MS4448P can do 240vac OR 120vac at up to 4400 watts continuous power and up to 8500 watts for five seconds if you need to startup an air conditioner or something similar. You can of course use more than one in parallel and the battery is quite capable of well over 50,000 watts for brief periods.
The Sunny Island 6048 is for some odd reason limited to 120vac and you need two of them to do 240vac. But it is a bit stronger at 5750 watts and can do 11000 watts for 3 seconds. And so two of the Sunny Island units could do over 11,000 watts continuous at 240vac.
Outback Power is actually the 800 lb gorilla in this space. They had announced a new device termed the “Skybox” by quarter 2 of this year. They missed that deadline. Now they are talking about a 48v version by the end of the year and a high voltage version sometime thereafter. It will combine the charge controller, the inverter, battery communications, and advanced grid interface management into a single box.
Ultimately, it IS about higher DC voltages. The cabling becomes much more manageable for one thing. But what we are doing in this episode is kind of central. There will be MANY more electric cars. And they are routinely wrecked. And their batteries diminish to the point where they are not very effective at driving a car, but still have MORE than adequate life left to power a house. Houses have much lower peak power demands than cars do and the “capacity” or “range” just isn’t nearly as important.
The Tesla car needs 350 kW of power. 20kW PEAK for a house would be absurdly high and that is more than an order of magnitude less.
Similarly an 85kWh Tesla pack would be considered “finished” at 80% or 68kWh. You just would not tolerate that in a car and would replace the battery. But 68kWh is an immense amount of storage for a house. Two days and nights of operation in one battery and there is absolutely nothing in this world preventing the use of two Tesla packs.
And so I would advocate sizing the equipment to use the vehicle batteries at their native voltage and form to provide the storage for the houses. It is precisely where vehicle batteries should go to die. And there will be sufficient electric cars built and wrecked that a brand new battery for home storage of electricity doesn’t even make sense.
How, when and why these outputs coordinate with the 240vac input to your house is a bit of a minefield and potentially a battlefield. The utility companies at this point for some reason would just as soon it go away. But as the prices drop for all this, increasingly what they want will be immaterial. The existing grid would be ideal for sharing this power around efficiently, but it really is not ultimately necessary and if they become too annoying, I would see increasing numbers of individuals simply cutting the tie and avoiding them altogether. Natural gas is cheap and efficient for heating and cooking, but is ultimately obsolete as well. All that can be done by electricity – given enough of it.
I believe that timing is everything. And at this MOMENT we are on the cusp of a violently disruptive revolution. I think the existing utility companies WILL do exactly what large corporations always do, behave badly and not even in their own interests. It remains ridiculously expensive to build your own power plant using batteries and equipment and photovoltaics, but it is now only painfully expensive. Some (like me) will be sufficiently enraged by utility company misbehavior to do it anyway. Costs will continue to drop as individuals choose to adopt this anyway, which will lead to more individuals making the same choice in a cascade effect just as all technologies are wont to do.
My observation is that all of this typically takes decades of grueling effort and ridiculous expenditures by the adventurous, followed by a sudden hockey-stick upturn in the adoption curve by all. This lunge will finally and inevitably occur within the next 10 short years. Ultimately, even the utility companies will adopt photovoltaics as their main source of electricity – assuming they even survive at all as we know them.
And so yes, I’m a little giddy this week with a deep joy as I see all of this laid out on a wooden table in front of me in my shop. The charge controller, the batteries, the battery controller we are working on, and a couple of examples of AC inverters. Really trivial work when you think about it in accessing Tesla’s BMS boards and communicating with the Inverters by CAN to glue these existing bits together. And of course, you can charge an electric car with it as well.
As Bill says, Driving on Sunshine….
This then is the future. It is as inevitable as rain.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this will illuminate some of our following and viewers on the apparently puzzling enigma of Jack and the Global Warming fracas. I THINK it is probably nonsense perpetuated by morons. But it doesn’t matter and it never did. We don’t need to save the planet, and we never did. We need MORE EFFICIENT AND ELEGANT technologies to deal with energy and empower our freedom of movement and all our OTHER activities on the planet, and we always did. Magic rocks are the answer. But what precisely was the question?
I can easily observe that every building fire occurring in the City of Cape Girardeau has been accompanied by the presence of a large, expensive, red firetruck. So should I focus on eliminating firetrucks? Would that bring down the statistical incidence of building fires in the city? Could I unite all the citizens of Cape Girardeau against firetrucks if I could seize control of the media and all studies of firetrucks? How about dealing with it indirectly? Could we just tax firetrucks? Or perhaps pass a tax on everyone who SAW a firetruck? Driving firetrucks into hiding by the force of our numbers?
The miracle of the last 10 years is that now ALL the pieces are available for sale off the shelf to anyone willing to pay the price. And the economics will follow as water downhill. And the act of pumping and spewing shit into the atmosphere never DID make any sense, and no matter what the impact, unless you are among the minority who LIKE suck-starting an Oldsmobile through the exhaust pipe, you all knew this all along.
Environmentalism always seems to be about a small minority leveraging the government into forcing the majority at gunpoint to spend their money and resources doing something the minority THINKS will be a good thing. These people never DO anything. They “advocate” that YOU do something at the point of a gun. They always have good intentions. But despite their fawning affectations, their intellectual and technical chops are actually very poor. As a result, their outcomes are poor and their “unintended consequences” legion and too often, tragic.
The difference between communist/totalitarian regimes and the libertarian philosophy is I will spend MY money to demonstrate a way that you can SEE will work or not work, and show you how to do the same thing. If enough of us demonstrate conclusively that it DOES work, then as the solution is refined and costs come down others will follow as well. And if it works on a small scale, it will work better on a large one, all other things being equal.
For me, it has always been about empowering INDIVIDUALS at the expense of corporations and governments. Wresting control away from those who would enslave us for money. That’s what the Internet thing was all about. It’s what the EV thing is all about. It’s what the energy thing is all about. That is what Jack is all about.
Or as Elon Musk so awkwardly, but oddly at the same time eloquently put it:
“It is about finding ways to think about the future that don’t make us sad….”
And he didn’t build an advocacy group.
He built a car…
By way of update to the graph, as of the end of 2016 the current estimate is 302 GW of photovoltaic capacity worldwide.
BTW: Checkout viewer Ben Stewart’s build video below. Just a great build all around….