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Tech Talk: Solar tech needs to evolve more like the Web

Ever since I worked in the National Park System in college, I’ve been a bit of a “greenie” environmentalist. To clarify, there are a couple types of environmentalists out there: There are environmental scientists, and then there are greenies — hobbyists who occasionally try things like composting all of their coffee grounds for six months, or going a full year without eating beef. We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we’re interested in helping.

So if a greenie like me ever comes into money, she’s likely to buy some solar panels. At least, that’s what I did. I started reading about how much more advanced solar panel technology is today and how the energy grid was going to start working like the Internet, where it would use technology switches to distribute electricity where it’s needed. This would transform today’s method of running the grid like a plumbing system, where 100 percent of it is lit at maximum capacity all the time.

Time to change the world

The idea was this: Solar panels today can generate far more electricity compared with the older models, and the new smart grid will help ensure that none of the power goes to waste. I was so excited that I dove headfirst into the industry, beginning with research — I wrote an extensive whitepaper for The NAIOP Research Foundation called “Rooftop Revenue” that analyzed the industry and outlined the alternative energy revenue opportunities for businesses.

I even went so far as to join a solar integrator company, Soleil Solar, to help them go to market. (Disclosure: I did marketing work for them — I’m no longer involved with the company — and my husband’s construction firm was Soleil’s installer of choice.) It was time to change the world.

It’s not that easy.

What I didn’t know when ordering my solar panels is that solar kits come in boxes with hundreds and hundreds of parts. I was under the mistaken assumption that solar panels fit neatly on racking systems where they simply “clicked into place.” When I opened the boxes I started to cry. This was too much work for a greenie.

After paying for an army of contractors (roofers, solar installers, electricians and a solar integrator) I had a 15-panel solar system in place, and was ready to start saving the earth with my homegrown electricity.

Where’s the ROI?

I’m now about three months post-installation and have generated enough power to burn a single 100-watt light bulb for 335 days (or 10 bulbs for 33 days). I don’t feel like I’m saving the earth.

And it looks like the smart grid isn’t exactly racing across Maryland to save us, either. We had a net meter installed to help our house participate in the Internet of Electricity, but I’m the only one I know of.

I’m seriously underwhelmed. As a greenie, I thought we were on the technological brink of repairing our global warming issues, and that a few panels would power not only my own house, but half of the neighborhood. It was the readjustment of my expectations that hurt the most.

With all of this talk about how much better solar is this time around, I had hoped it would be cheaper, easier to install and more impactful. But it doesn’t seem like we’re really that much further ahead after 30 years of development. When you compare this snail’s pace in development to the Internet’s pace, well, it’s inexcusable.

In search of amplitude

It seems like many of us would like to see the kind of technology adopted that can make an impact on our ecology, but it’s not happening. And I am shocked to the point of nausea that solar panels are still basically the same as they were in the 1980s. The power output might be somewhat higher, but that’s not enough. Where’s the streamlining? Where’s the amplitude? Why do they still suck?

And where’s the sense of urgency to overhaul our energy distribution technology? The Internet transformed information distribution — I am certain that the energy infrastructure is at least that important. It’s mortifying to know that we can make substantial, game-changing adjustments to one of our core needs and core pollution points, but we’re sitting on the technology.

Wake up. Let’s go.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Baltimore. Her e-mail address is marci@mdvinteractive.com.