Inspection- Getting a Charge Out of the Sun

 This column was inspired by a Thom Hartmann program that featured a spokesperson from SAE Group talking about solar power

by Ken Carman

 I am a supporter of solar, and having a house off the grid in the Adirondacks I know it’s not as “far in the future” as some would like to insist. Indeed we should have more of it now by now in this country, at least as supplemental power.
 It’s not just some “tree hugger’s” radical left wing fantasy. And those who just say solar is far ahead in the future always make me suspicious: for that is the best way to make damn sure it’s far in the future, if not kill it entirely.
 Yet, when it comes to solar I find discussions that are less cynical of solar often equally disappointing and bothersome. For I know all too well the issue really isn’t the panels, or even placement. The real issue is storage. Repeat that with me: “storage.” Everyone please stop arguing about solar cells and placement. Storage is the real issue.
 Because the sun doesn’t shine every day, or even some for many weeks sometimes, in some places, you have to address the storage issue with an inverter pack and maybe a small generator like mine if this is a system for one household. I like my Hondas: they sip gas where the old Onan I used to have gobbled up a gallon an hour. You can run sensitive equipment like recording gear. The Onan was too big to move with ease, greasy and sat all winter long. I can pick up one of my Honda inverters with one hand. But, still, having to have a generator at all, well the less we can do that the better, right?
 The weak link is not the solar cells, or location, it’s batteries. While battery tech has improved, it hasn’t improved so much for solar/inverter applications. Indeed from everything I’ve investigated so far dated tech: 6 volt go cart batteries, are the most affordable, and best, solution for most folks.
 So instead of polluting our skies, having miners die in mining accidents, instead we dump acid filled batteries somewhere, or try to recycle them as best we can? We could use lithium, for example, but from what I’ve read they can catch fire and, well, I’ve heard there are other problems. Lithium is used to treat folks as a psychiatric medication and has been known to be abused. Not to mention the cost.
 I use lithium batteries on stage for my wireless mics. Treated right they last a long time. But I also know, unlike other batteries, I have to keep many of them and keep switching. The charge dips down faster than other batteries and it takes a while for them to recover. For a 45 minute to one hour program that works. But when you need a constant, steady, power source well… that’s a problem.
 There are no perfect sources of power, true. But we can always do better, like we eventually did powering our cars, our trains, our planes… our everything.
 There are so many people who know more about all this than me, but I view myself as an advocate for the better path and I think putting more solar power for the country first before batteries may be as if we tried to sell tickets for the masses to fly commercial jets across the ocean before we actually had a workable jet.
 So here’s my proposal: why don’t we have a crash program to improve battery tech? A year ago my first book was published: Autocide. In the year 2020 I imagined “bio bats:” batteries that worked with microorganisms, genetically engineered, that thrive on electrical charges. The knock off batteries in my alternative timeline: algae batteries. Imagine my surprise when I found out both concepts are being worked on.
 Now imagine a Mahattan Project, moon landing or Reagan’s Star Wars-like funding going to develop these concepts and more? Awards and recognition for John or Mary Q. Citizen who imagine better or offer improvements.
 Now imagine a Mahattan Project, moon landing or Reagan’s Star Wars-like funding going to develop these concepts and more? Awards and recognition for John or Mary Q. Citizen who imagine better or offer improvements.
 No matter what we do for a source of power, or sources, better, safer batteries can only help us, down to emergency flashlights used when broken down on the highway, or the power goes out. We could have better battery tech for our cars too. Businesses with bigger dreams could offer fully charged battery packs for electric cars, inverter packs and other uses. Standardizing such things the more applications, hence more customers you can sell to.
 Again this should be rewarded, financially and bring recognition. For too long, as a society, we have been rewarding folks for coming up with different ways to screw in a screw, despite the new way being no better, or even worse. Then rewarding maybe the same company for redesigning the head of the screw to make the new, maybe inferior, screwdriver work.
 Instead of driving up to the gas station we drive up to the battery exchange. Instead of the #2 oil salesman, or the propane man, the battery pack man stops by. The same sales woman who sells us our car batteries could provide batteries using the same tech for flashlights, cell phones… the only difference: the size and shape. And the more we can standardize those the better.
 Let’s encourage creativity and entrepreneurship while also rewarding those who successfully make the best tech work in all applications.
 Will there be bumps in the road? Of course. Just like there were bumps in terrible roads to making better cars. Over a century ago the head of one of the biggest providers of transportation in this country from carriages to cars said gas powered cars were, “…clumsy, dangerous, noisy brutes which stink to high heaven, break down at the worst possible moment and are a public nuisance.” That was J.M. Studebaker whose family did reluctantly switch from using electric to gas engines in their cars, saving his company for another half a century.
 Not an uncommon view by any means back then when gas engine technology was young, just like solar is now. The critics of solar remind me of JM. A man named Fred Fish, “fished” the company out of a premature grave by convincing JM to sell gas powered cars. Within a few years Stude stopped selling electric cars. And solar is far better, more reliable than those smelly, smoke belching, break down frequently monstrosities during the early years of automotive history.
 Maybe it’s time to look forward to switching back?
 We need to get over our timidity, stop being frightened by people who hate change, or are more interested in serving the whims of any single industry. We need to get over enough to make a better, cleaner, more healthy and brighter future. And investing in the future of battery tech, energy storage, is certainly one way to do that.


Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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