The Next Energy Boom: Personal Energy Independence

Solar is beginning to pick up traction across the U.S.

By Ian Bryant 

Solar power, energy storage and power management have entered the mainstream energy conversation as of late as company giants decide to enter the market and newcomers win awards at large events like the International Builders’ Show and Pacific Coast Builders Conference.

Solar adoption by most of the world’s major countries has been steady over the past decade, but in the U.S., it has struggled to gain traction across all states – until recently, that is. A large majority of the solar systems are in the West and Southwest (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) and add up to around 10.75 million homes. A few eastern states (New York, North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts) have roughly 2.4 million homes with some kind of solar setup.

Altogether, there are an estimated 17.7 million homes in the U.S. with solar power generating 19.2 GW of power. If the industry continues at this rate, it is expected the U.S. solar industry will install more than 324 GW of capacity over the next 10 years.

Overseas, the U.K. is currently generating around 13.5 GW of power through renewable energy sources. Solar is their third most common renewable energy form, with wind leading the way and generating five times the energy of solar. Other countries with broad adoption include China, Germany, Japan and Australia.

Along with wind, a growing number of countries are beginning to adopt other forms of renewables such as hydro, tidal, geothermal and biomass. But solar is the one source that the general public has easy access to and can make the biggest difference in energy savings. 

The cost of solar panels continues to drop and, at this writing, has hit an all-time low of $2.81 per watt (down 21% in the past four years). The average efficiency of solar panels is in the 10-20% range, but there are experimental technologies that are now seeing upwards of 45% efficiency. Solar installers can be found in nearly every major city in every industrialized country in the world, and there are small, inexpensive systems available for supplying power to a few electronic devices.

 

Make It, Then Store It

Solar power generation is only a piece of the energy boom for homeowners and businesses. Storing that energy is key to a well-rounded system. New battery technologies are paving the way for personal energy independence. Lithium-iron-phosphate, lithium-manganese-cobalt, lithium-air, lithium-sulfur, sodium-ion, magnesium-ion and vanadium flow are technologies showing promising results for higher output and more cycles than the current lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries. 

Distributed energy resources (DER) can support redundancy and provide fail-safes to a local (or larger) grid by incorporating multiple levels of energy creation and energy storage to support a community in times of outages, under-performing power supplies, or a sudden increase in energy demand.

Energy independence is not just a focus for countries, states or cities anymore. People are realizing they want to have energy independence in their homes. A solution once touted as a mere money-saver is now about climate change and self-preservation. 

Rolling blackouts during global fire seasons over the last few years, the severe weather that took Texas to its knees and a move to stop using natural gas in countries like the U.K. (along with harsh winters there) are stressing the power grid. As consumers become more energy-aware, all home professionals, including CEDIA members who are apt in creating homes that function efficiently, have an opportunity to make a difference by becoming familiar with renewable energy solutions.

 “People are realizing they want to have energy independence in their homes. A solution once touted as a mere money-saver is now about climate change and self-preservation.”

Depending on country and state regulations, the work of a licensed electrician may not be required. For areas that do require a licensed electrician, allied trades and technology integrators can still play an active role by partnering with solar specific companies to install portions of the system, as they would a lighting system. By working together from the start, electricians, technology integrators, builders and developers can ensure a smooth outcome for the entirety of the home – no matter their individual domains.

Manage It

To complete this circle, a power monitoring and management system is fundamental. Technology advancements in power distribution over the past year have made monumental changes. Power distribution panels and modern circuit breakers in the U.S. haven’t had any major updates in roughly 60 years. This is rapidly changing, and it is bringing with it all new ways to monitor and manage the power of a home. 

These advancements include automated load shedding when power input or battery levels are low; information on the best and cheapest time to charge your EV or when to pull power from your EV to power your house; the ability to control every circuit in your home from anywhere; and analyses on how you are using your power with recommendations on ways to save.

Add it all up, and the results are pretty clear: Rising energy costs, outdated power grids, and the effects from climate change mean renewable energy, storage and management are set to surge over the next five years across the globe. Personal energy independence could soon be just as important as financial independence, and design and build professionals will be the ones to lead the revolution.

Ian Bryant, CIT, IST, COI, a 20+ year veteran in the residential and commercial integration industries, is Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships at CEIDA.