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Invention is the mother of … curiosity killed the … or was it the other thing?

Invention is in the DNA of Gibbons | Peck. Anne’s dad was an R&D engineer in the aerospace industry. He invented some of the best ejection seat technology of all time. Made it kind of unnerving to be riding shotgun with him, in the Buick Roadmaster stationwagon, with the faux wood siding. I mean, who knows what he had rigged up in that seat? James’s grandfather worked on the safety crew in a steel mill. Basically, his job was inventing shields and gates after every industrial accident, to make sure that particular kind of accident never happened again (so it goes with heavy industry in the middle of the 20th Century).

Anyhow, we went down to hang out with our friends with the South Carolina Solar Council the other day. They gave a lot of awards. But the coolest one was given to C.W. Moorer (pictured above), for a residential installation for which he made his own solar panels. Yes, he made his own solar panels. Now, to a tinker and techie type, this may not seem like a big deal (although the guys from the electrical utilities seemed to be pretty impressed). But to me, it seems a little like saying, “I always wanted to see the moon close up, so I built myself a rocket ship).

They say that curiosity killed the cat. Thus spawning a historic boom in the mouse population. Thus raising the need for a better mouse trap, the invention of which spawned the Interstate highway system, as the world beat a path to the door of its inventor. Thus spawning the gated community with security cameras…invention is the mother of necessity apparently. Anyhow, back to solar energy.

We learned a couple of cool things that we didn’t know before.

First of all, current solar panels are less than 20 percent efficient. That’s why it doesn’t really make sense to stick them on top of Priuses to recharge the batteries. They just can’t make enough electricity in that small amount of real estate (although the geothermal in my 1987 Sentra was enough to heat most houses—but I digress again). So, if and when they come up with more efficient PV panels, there will be an explosion of applications—solar airplanes, cars, boats … the sky’s the limit.

The leading edge of electric utilities is in cooperation. It turns out they are responsible for supplying power to meet the “load demand.” This means they need continuous, varied, dependable sources of electricity. This also functions in contrast to environmental regulations, which will limit the amount of that electricity they will be able to generate in the future by burning stuff that ought not be burnt. So, the smart ones are working with thought leaders and ordinary consumers to generate, capture, and distribute things like solar and wind energy. Of course, there are some dumb, 19th Century thinking utilities (who shall be nameless here), who want to crush all solar, because they can’t own it or control it. But the future does not belong to them. And the past is losing its value daily.

Which leads us to what one solar guru calls “the holy grail of solar—” storage. The practical problem is that the peak hours for solar generation are diametrically opposite the peak hours for electricity usage (load demand). So, relatively little of the power that ends up being generated can actually be used, and there are about 14-16 hours during which other sources of energy need to be available. The solution to this lies in battery technology. By storing the solar energy overage for a 24 hour cycle, it would become feasible to build huge solar farms, put solar on top of commercial and residential buildings, and use net metering to capture the excess energy and save it for when the demand happens.

There is, of course, good news on this front (at the infrastructure level). In the Pacific Northwest, small communities are already experimenting with “micro-grids.” Small, mixed-use areas where commercial, residential, and industrial facilities share a solar capability, along with a large battery backup system. As this technology becomes more readily available, portable, and scalable (down to the residential level), solar will become a much larger player in the energy game.

Meanwhile, I say we get C.W. Moorer working on the whole storage problem. Maybe there is a solution that involves cut potatoes. Who knows.

Exciting times, y’all. We’re grateful to be a part of all of this.

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