VIEWPOINT: Watch out for ‘experts’ in Whidbey PUD debate

I found the article on “Buyout of PSE won’t be cheap, experts say” interesting but somewhat poor in coverage.

  • Wednesday, July 9, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

I found the article on “Buyout of PSE won’t be cheap, experts say” interesting but somewhat poor in coverage.

“To cover start-up costs and potential lawsuits, People For Yes on Whidbey PUD organizers said they would consider a property tax levy that could be as high as 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.”

Really? So if the county has assessed your property to be worth $300,000 that would be an additional $135 tacked on to your property taxes, which in my case is already in excess of $1,100 per year and apparently rising despite an obvious downturn in the world economy, which seems to be worse in the U.S. than anywhere else.

And this is based on what? Didn’t the article say it didn’t know what the costs for Whidbey Island would be? Go out and agree to buy your next automobile without knowing what the price tag is, that should be interesting.

“The Skagit PUD expects to be in business within two to five years.”

Good, let them be the pilot and we can see how successful they are before we jump overboard and join them. Five years isn’t all that long to wait to see what type of successes or failures they have before we commit ourselves to something like this.

“Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, outlined how solar energy will outpace any other forms of energy in the not-too-distant future,” and “Photovoltaics can be made of sand,” he said. “Any time you can make something out of sand, I say, do it.”

Now think about this one carefully, just what would you expect a director of a solar industry to say? Why he implies, with his comments on sand, that virtually anyone can do this and it’s far more complex than just taking sand and making photovoltaics.

I work for one of the largest, if not the largest, manufacturer of spacecraft that are powered by solar photovoltaic cells in the world. In fact our facility manufactures solar photovoltaic arrays for many of our competitors in our particular industry. As a satellite communications engineer, one of the things I have had to become aware of is the efficiencies of these solar photovoltaic cells when considering how to use them to power spacecraft and satellites.

What Mr. Nelson has failed to let you know is that in direct unfiltered sunlight, free from the effects of the atmosphere such as out in space, the majority of these photovoltaic panels are only about 16 percent efficient.

Now, yes, there are newer cells that have higher efficiency but they are very new, only about 30 percent efficient in direct sunlight, and to my knowledge, are not currently being used in commercial solar arrays available to the general public.

Now let us look at one of these arrays on the ground, where you can utilize the power from them. A critical factor to consider is incidence angle of the sun, cloud cover and other things that affect the efficiency of these things.

It’s a pretty well established fact that photovoltaics don’t really work all that well under cloud cover. So let me ask you, what type of weather do we typically see all over Whidbey Island?

Next, the lower the sun angle is, off of the horizon, the less power you have conveyed to these panels by a factor of solar angle. The additional amount of atmospheric filtering of sunlight, at low sun angles, means that these panels will operate at an even lower efficiency, in as much as Whidbey is mostly above 48 degrees of latitude.

To compensate, somewhat, for this, to really be maximize the efficiency of these panels it’s necessary for them to physically track the sun as it apparently moves east to west daily and north to south to north throughout the year. If you don’t take these measures you lose a lot of their efficiency and what do you do when the sun goes down?

On the other hand, if you do positive tracking of the sun to maximize exposure of these solar panels, there is also the loss of power necessary to drive those mechanisms that also must be considered and this further reduces overall efficiency.

The average cell produced for the general public and most commercial applications have a working lifespan of something like 20 years. However it is important to note, in commercial power applications, most of these companies change out their panels approximately every six to eight years and sell them as used panels, for a very high price, to consumers like us. You can check this out for yourself by googling up solar photovoltaic panels.

It seems to me these commercial entities wouldn’t replace these panels if they maintained a high efficiency over the length of their manufactured life spans.

So, what am I saying in all of this?

Be very careful on how you proceed with this and don’t let yourselves be duped into believing experts without proper published credentials before you decide to support this project.

Dave Hardesty is a Freeland property owner and someone who has done much experimentation with solar photovoltaic cells on his own time.

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