Home & Garden Columns

About the House: At War with Germany Again

By Matt Cantor
Friday August 03, 2007

We’re at war with Germany again, and this time they’re winning. No, it’s not a shooting war but since shooting wars always start with economic pretexts, it’s not a far stretch to talk about shooting wars in conjunction with this war and since it involves energy, it’s easy to point to our differing approaches to the war in Iraq as one example of how they’re winning, both morally and physically. 

First of all, they’re not in Iraq. This means that they’re winning the approval of their people (who think, like most peoples outside the U.S. that our leadership in energy and diplomacy is retarded). They’re also winning morally, in my opinion, since they’re working hard to create alternatives to oil in the form of, primarily, solar power. 

The battleground in this war is taking place at the hardware store (now that’s MY idea of the right place to fight a war). It’s being fought with cost incentives, pilot projects and legislation and let me tell you brother, it’s not going well for us. 

Here are some of the daily death tolls. In 2005 German families bought 632,000 kilowatts in solar grid-tie systems. We bought 70,000. Germany is a county of less than one-third our population at 82 million (we just passed 300 million).  

So let’s do the math and let’s be extra fair to the enemy. If we include all other forms of PV (photovoltaic), you can take the U.S. up to 103 million and Germany up to 635,000 (nearly all of their PV systems are grid-tie), so this means that a country of less than a third our size, bought, in 2005, more than 6 times the number of watts in solar installations than we did. If we multiply this times the population difference, they beat us by a factor of more than 22. Things are not going well for us in this war. Back to the coal mines, I guess. I didn’t need my lungs anyway (or clean water, glaciers, bees, plant-life...). 

By the way, just for fun, guess who our other major opponent is in this war is (and they’re also wiping the floor with us, although not quite so comically). Yes, friends, it’s Japan (they’re numbers are about half of Germany’s and their population is less than half of ours). See, the Marshall plan worked. Keeping Japan and Germany from developing military power after WWII was the best thing we could have done for them. They had to get busy with things like, say, education, infrastructure, medicine and technology. Maybe we should whoop the Marshall plan on our selves. “Now, young man, go to your room for 50 years and I don’t want to hear anything from you but non-military development.” Imagine what we could accomplish! 

It’s also interesting that, while the U.S. has more off-grid (won’t share) power generation than Germany, they still have over three times our total developed capacity. Their systems are designed to share extra electricity with the nearest neighbor. Ours is designed for me, me, me. I guess those damned socialists think that by collectivizing, they can sneak up on us and wipe us out (by the way, it’s working). It might be time for us to do a little of that socialist collectivizing, when it comes to energy (the single biggest business in the U.S., Ca-Ching).  

It may be just this attitude and the fears of our corporate fathers (and mothers. Sorry, women can also rob from the poor and give to the rich) that has prevented the U.S. from doing what is almost certainly the basis of Germany’s success story, which is the incentivizing of their system. You see, Germans are getting paid back TWICE the rate they pay for power for every watt they give to the grid.  

(By the way, this grid-tie system I keep mentioning is one in which the solar panels feed electricity directly to your main electrical panel and can be used immediately by the house or flow out through the meter, turning it backward, and to the neighborhood for others to use.) 

Now, you and I, in the U.S. don’t get paid back double for the watts we contribute. We don’t even get paid back once for each watt. We only get to reduce our bill to zero and then we get SQUAT. Now, why would you buy a nice big solar array when all you get after you’ve paid your bill down to zero is the comfort of knowing that PG&E stockholders will be showered in the extra cash you just gave them. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t buy a solar array. Just that, sadly, the smallest system that meets your needs is the logical financial approach, at least for the present. 

Most PV systems have inverters (the part that turns PV power into house power) that can accommodate a range of array sizes and if a day arrives when you can get paid to generate power, you can then add more panels (in the worst case, you’d need a new inverter). 

Steve, a client of mine, the other day was buying a house that had a nice big fat solar array. It was well installed and already had close to 10 years of road time on it. Steve knew enough to ask about the problem of throwing away excess electrons and wanted to know if there were ways to use the extra electricity in the house. I told him that I hoped that in the next few years, driven by shame, the U.S. could well catch up with Germany and he could then sell the excess back to the grid. If true, it might be best to consider these issues in the selection of electrical equipment. 

Switching to electrical water heating is one thing that Steve could do with his free watts. I’m not generally a fan of electric water heating, space heating or cooking due to it’s environmental costs. This is because electricity is usually generated at some distant location by burning something and the loss of power by the time we arrive at your house is generally 2/3 of what we had to begin with. Of course, if power is generated with solar, wind or waves, I don’t care too much, although I still think, from a political perspective, that it’s better to decentralize and (don’t hurt me now) give power back to the people. BUT, given the current alternatives, I’m willing to take a ride with centralized eco-friendly electric power. 

We considered three kinds of electric water heating. Tanked (which is the cheapest), on-demand central or on-demand local (tiny units put in baths, kitchen, or laundry). Given the tangible possibility that he might soon sell back the extra watts, I suggested the tanked model. While not my usual first choice, it was the cheapest approach and, therefore, the least painful to dump after just a few years. Also, it could be turned off, replaced by a gas on-demand unit and remain as a flow-through seismic water storage unit. 

I similarly suggested a set of baseboard electric heaters to replace the now condemnable gravity gas heater in the basement. They’re cheap and could also be tossed in favor of something better when things change. 

My friend J.P. Ross, who works on solar legislation, also points out that some folks are selling or giving away car chargings to their friends before their billing year is over as a way of deflating their losses. Apparently, annual billing cycles are different for everyone and you can find a different person each month to charge up the electric hybrid if you’re well connected (so to speak). 

While all these strategies are helpful in the face of a bad system, the ultimate solution is to demand fair pay for fair watts. J.P. says that the solar initiative folks currently have an understanding with P.G.&E. NOT to try to push for cash repayment while they focus on more winnable fights. 

While I respect the fine work these people are doing, I feel like we’re all getting taken for a ride that hurts the development of solar power, the sale of PV systems and, ultimately, the earth. I urge everyone to write their governator or their congress-woman . and ask them to take a look at the difference between the German system and the U.S. system. 

Hopefully, we won’t have to lose a war to learn THIS lesson. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at mgcantor@pacbell.net.