Rebuilding Iraq’s economy could go faster with solar power. A radio story on Iraq this morning cited the fact that banks there have video surveillance systems, among other security measures, but that the systems don’t work when the power is off, which averages a significant part of each day. Banks, obviously, are a key part of reviving the Iraqi economy, but while banks are being re-established in neighborhoods where violence has declined, their security is still an issue due to daily power outages. This presents an obvious opportunity for solar power systems, even if they only power the security systems. It also brings out the question of why, in a country with a lot of dry weather and little cloud cover, solar power isn’t being pursued with vigor in all its forms.
The cost of providing solar backup power systems in key facilities in Iraq is not prohibitive. If there is one bank for every three thousand households, for instance, that would mean 1350 solar power systems needed just for bank security, and banks are certainly an important part of reconstruction and rebuilding the economy. If those systems cost $2000 each, it would seem we could outfit every bank branch in Iraq with a minimal solar backup power capability for around 2.7 million dollars – a drop in the bucket when we are already spending 90 million dollars there every day. Since the U.S. government is spending so many billions on trying to rebuild this country, why isn’t some of that money going towards solar power for Iraqi banks and other key facilities?
The potential Iraqi market for solar systems is huge. With 4,050,597 households in Iraq (link to article citing 2005 census) and a proportional number of businesses needing backup power, solar power would seem to be a “no brainer”. The country is positioned for maximum benefit from solar power systems, and such decentralized power sources would benefit the country significantly while the power infrastructure is being restored. The US Army is not only calling for more “green” power for itself, but reconstruction efforts are seeing solar-powered street lights installed in Fallujah and other cities (link).
Iraqi demand for solar systems would benefit the United States also. Extending that idea farther, why wouldn’t a lot of Iraqi households want their own solar power systems? Four million households is a big market, and I would expect solar system manufacturers to be champing at the bit to serve such a market. As far as I can tell, this opportunity is being missed by both the U.S. government and the solar power industry. Increased Iraqi demand for solar electric panels, solar hot water heaters, solar water desalination, etc., would certainly provide incentive for manufacturers to provide such items, increasing production volumes and making them cheaper for buyers outside Iraq as well.
The demand for alternative power sources will grow. In the future, as fossil fuels become increasingly expensive, it is quite possible that most countries, including even the most developed countries, will experience routine power outages, and all it will take is another “Enron” debacle or a rapid run-up in fuel costs. Combine that with cost cutting, reduced maintenance, and delayed modernization of the electrical infrastructure and, years later, brownouts and rolling blackouts will result, as was seen a few years ago in California. Such conditions will motivate people to acquire alternative energy systems for their homes at an even more rapid rate than in the past, especially as energy prices rise. Companies that are prepared for this change will do well.
Some energy utilities have supported barriers to solar power adoption. To date, solar power has not been cost competitive in the U.S. The payback period for solar systems, compared to substitute sources of power (the power utilities), has been far too long to create much customer demand. Few consumers can justify investing when facing a 30 year payback, for example. While the ability to sell excess power to the utilities usually brings payback times back within a practical time period, the utilities have traditionally put up paperwork barriers in the form of extensive application requirements, rapidly changing standards which burden the homeowner with extra cost and aggravation, and bureaucratic inertia, thus discouraging people from buying home solar power systems. Unfortunately, my state public service commission and government have not acted on behalf of the people to correct this. According to a presentation by the Utah Renewable Energy Initiative Stakeholder Group, the DOE has acknowledged these problems (link). Note that dealing with more than half of the listed issues is directly within the capabilities of the utility industry, while the rest could be addressed in public policy. Here are the issues the DOE cited:
DOE-identified significant market barriers to solar
- Lack of communication, information dissemination, and consumer awareness
- Inadequate codes and standards
- Lack of appropriate, consistent interconnection standards
- Lack of equitable and effective netmetering guidelines
- Inconsistent utility rate structure practices
- Complex permitting procedures and fees
- Inconsistent and lack of widespread incentives and other drivers
- Limited education/experience of key building trades with solar technology
- Lack of trained technical personnel, reliable installers, and maintenance services
- Lack of flexible, sophisticated, proven financial approaches
Financial incentives, which would be improved by reduced costs from Iraqi-related production, are needed to drive more rapid solar power adoption. As energy costs rise, even public policy and the attitudes of the utilities will eventually change, but sooner if there is financial incentive. How can we, the public, influence policy? We must start by communicating our desires to our elected representatives. How can we change the financial incentives so utility companies see more benefit from supporting decentralization of power sources than from resisting this change? I am open to suggestion (and will modify this item as applicable ideas come up).
At this point it appears a near certainty that solar power will be a substantial enabler in the pursuit of sustainability. As always, I welcome your comments and ideas.
Barriers to Solar Energy, August 8, 2007, Utah Renewable Energy Initiative Stakeholder Group, Sarah Wright, Director
In the Iraqi War Zone, US Army Calls for ‘Green’ Power, Sept. 7, 2006, Mark Clayton, The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com)
Solar Firm to Brave Iraq’s Uncertainty, April 6, 2004, www.worldwater.com via www.renewableenergyworld.com
Iraq War: A Renewable Energy Opportunity Cost, June 16, 2005, Paul Gipe, www.wind-works.org via www.renewableenergyworld.com