A reader of the blog recently asked us, “Have you thought about solar?” Yes, solar panels were always present in every one of our best-imagined versions of our skoolie before we began the conversion . Yet, after three months into our full-time skoolie adventure we have still not taken the step to solarize our skoolie. Here’s why.
- We don’t need it (yet). – Although we do feel that the skoolie will not be complete until we install solar panels and are able to claim ourselves to be energy-independent nomads, the truth is we just don’t need it at the moment. With our current electrical setup we can can plug in anywhere from a regular 15amp (120v) outlet to a 50amp hook-up. We also have a 3500 watt gasoline generator that we can deploy when boon-docking. Ideally, we would switch to solar tomorrow if we could, but it’s not feasible at the moment for the reasons listed below.
- It is too expensive still. – The price of solar has certainly come down and many readers will find that it is in fact very affordable for them. It’s just not affordable enough for us. At the moment where we are parked we are being charged $0.12 per kilowatt, which I believe to be about average for where we are. Our last full-month electric bill came to $59.28 for 494kwh.
Given that our usage will fluctuate from month to month, we’ll treat this as our average usage. So for the year we might expect our electricity costs to be about $711.28 (12mos x 59.28/mo). And our daily usage to be about 16.45 kwh per day (494kwh / 30days).
That means we would need a system that could at least deliver 16.45 kwh daily by whatever configuration of components. However, of all the bits that make up the solar power system, the inverter is the most important to us. Since we utilize three computers regularly, an air conditioner, and a coffee maker (the most important thing of all things!!!), the inverter must be able to deliver at least 3000watts at any given time, and ideally, this should be a pure sine wave inverter given that computers are involved. Using that as a reference point, we have estimated the cost of the systems to anywhere between $3,000 to $8,000 (including batteries). And I’m not so sure this system could handle something like running the air conditioner all day, though I suspect it would not without a massive investment in a large battery bank. This means that at the least expensive option, it would take us over three years to it get it to pay for itself. That’s too long of a payoff, specially given that we do not need it at the moment.
- Better technology around the bend. – Even if we had the cash on hand to go solar, I would have to hesitate to take the plunge since I think that the current technology is bound for rapid development in the near future. Developments in the solar power industry landscape are coming in the areas of battery capacity and in terms of the efficiency of photo-voltaic power generation, led primarily by Elon Musk’s Tesla corporation with a handful of other companies. To understand what’s happening in the industry it would be best to first consider what the industry needs.
- First, there must be greater investment into materials research that will yield greater efficiency throughout the power generation circuit. From the quality of the glass on the panel, to the photo-voltaic sensors and circuitry, to the capacity of the batteries and their lifespan. So far such investments have made it so that a panel bought today can be 10 – 20 times better that a similar panel 10 years ago and perhaps the same could be said for the battery capacity frontier.
- Advances in materials research are nevertheless directly dependent on investments from private and public sources.
- Sources of investment need to be made consistent and reliable and not driven by fluctuation in public opinion or political wrangling.
- Finally, the industry needs to enter into a mode of mass production that should help apply the economies of scale against the price and also promote the miniaturization of components as well as their standardization. All of which will yield greater modularity of components, thus allowing for greater manufacturing specialization and leading to even greater effects on price, miniaturization and modularity. All of which are being currently spurred forward by the Tesla Corporation and their development of the Gigafactory in Nevada.
- I expect that within 3-4 years, the price of the technology will drop by 30-50% and the efficiency will increase by at least 20%. Making it all much more affordable for budget-conscious nomads like us.
- With greater adoption of the technology by general consumers, there is also a great likelihood that popular awareness of the power draw of common appliances will increase, prompting a shift toward less power-hungry products. Which would offset any plateaus in the advancement/efficiency of solar power generation.
Having said all of this, Katy and I believe strongly that solar power is the technology that will allow for greater mobility and full-time off-grid living. The adoption threshold for us sits just far away to make it into a luxury at the moment. But we can clearly see it in the horizon and getting closer.