Podcast: Richard Perez, powering the world entirely with renewable energy

Richard Perez

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Richard Perez believes the world could easily power itself entirely with renewable energy. A research professor at the University at Albany's Atmospheric sciences Research Center, he developed a model that predicts how much solar energy will be on panels at different times of year based on weather patterns.



00:00 Hello, this is Melissa, Hale-Spencer, the editor of the Altamont Enterprise, and we are in a new place today. We're here with Dr Richard Perez in the building that looks kind of like a ship with a proud that many of you have seen as you drive by and fuller road. It's the atmospheric sciences building and Dr Perez is a senior researcher who has a passion for solar and as you look around his office is that now you would see his entire desk is lined with the many, many awards he's gotten. I'll read this one renewable energy innovator of the year that's from the Association of energy engineers and our reporter Rose Schneider, ran into him at a forum of Guilderland and was so impressed with and we decided we had to talk with it. So thank you for making the time for us. Thank you. And I'd like to find out if you could just start kind of at the beginning of your passion for solar, where. Where did it come from? How did you, how did you develop that is your chief interest


01:12 interest came from very, very long time ago. I was living in France back then there was the energy crisis in the 1970s. Um, we had to go out and fight for oil and save it to make sure for me that didn't make any sense that we would fight for something and they may be better ways around. Then I was fortunate that I went to a lecture in Paris and someone just presented key numbers and they look like solo was a very, very big number to grow on. So I thought that's the way to go. That's where the

01:54 patient's cells from the 1970 [inaudible] until now. There's been a lot of progress that's been made, but I understand there's a lot more to be made so if you can just kind of tell us a little. And I went online to find some stories and I see you've written dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of articles. So it's going to be hard to put it in a nutshell, but if you could just kind of tell us what your research consists of. Okay.

02:20 So first progress on then research. Yeah. So solar has not changed. Solar is the sun, same, same old son we've had for millions of years. So that's the good part about solar is that it's very stable. What has changed is the technologies to harness it and transform it into forms we can use, um, over over the years we can use solar now, gene variety of ways to make heat to heat buildings. Oh, he taught water or to make electricity. Um, the technology that has evolved the most rapidly is electricity making on one of them in particular, which is photo voltaic transformation of direct conversion of sunlight into electricity. So when I get started into my research work, uh, satellites in space, but the terrorist real path was extremely expensive. But over those 30 years of work, it has come down in price very appreciatively. We are today. It's probably the cheapest way to make us electric kilowatt hour, a single unit of electricity. It's probably the cheapest way to do it. Today's by solar energy.

03:41 And I know that this country is lagging behind Europe in its embrace of this technology. What, what are the hurdles? What kinds of things have to be overcome in order or I guess another way of asking the question is why is it a company like Germany's so far ahead in terms of using renewable energy?

04:08 That's a multifaceted question and we've got time. So first the, the grass is always greener out there, so we think now there is better. It is in some ways, but in others not so Germany gets so far ahead and that was the only country in the world for a long time, much more than neighboring France, which has more sunshine than Germany, but Germany was a country with most installed solar power of every single country on the planet combine for many years. Um, I think it's all traceable to the big scare they had with the Chernobyl nuclear incidents where they were under the clouds and kids could not eat a salad, no anything grown in the fields for months because of the general feeling, the fallout from trauma pills. So it was a huge scare. And they also had a green party which was influential and they started with something called net metering early on. Tell us about not net metering. Yeah, feeding Terry, I'm sorry. So feeding Terry for something that was invented in fact in Switzerland and it eats US special terry to sell your own electricity to the utility company very at a price high enough so that your investment in solar can pay off.

05:33 So if you put up, for instance, solar panels in your home surplus of this energy would then sell it.

05:39 No, you would sell everything in Germany. So in Germany and Switzerland when he'd get started, photovoltaic was extremely expensive, much more expensive than what you paid for electricity. So you had a special terry fat, which you could put that system on your roof and sell it to the utility company at a very high price. So your investment and that was a very good system. And utilities didn't mind it too much initially because that was a thought that was a small program and that would fizzle out at some point, but it didn't. And it grew and it grew and he grew on a got to be a very lounge business in Germany. Uh, and the enabled countries like China and others to actually supply that market with lower and lower caste systems. And so it, it was photovoltaic is more or less a tale of three countries.

06:37 It's the US first because we invented everything in the US in terms of, in terms of the technology, then Germany, because they created a giant market enabled people to supply that market on the people we supply that market first and foremost are the Chinese companies and they made the technology very, very broad, bottom price, affordable, affordable, and other countries follow. Of course they are panels which are made in the u s which are almost the same price as the Chinese. But that was that big. So Germany enabled it, China supply dates and now the, the, the, the world is it? Yep. Fight friends invented it in the 19th century. Um. Oh. Tell us about that. It was Mr Baker Baker who can east kind of to do with uncovering the photovoltaic effect, but the first one to really put it in practice with a workable device. The people at Bell Labs in the 19 fifties that created actually the first solar cell that doesn't look all that much different from what we see on people to move today. Huh?

07:56 Well, it's interesting to me that both your personal experience which came out of this 19 seventies crisis and then the German experience which came out of the Chernobyl crisis, you know, propelled you personally and propel the entire country to, to move to this renewable model. But is there something short of a crisis that should or could be done to motivate either. It seems to me it's almost beyond the scope of an individual, um, that it must take some sort of government leadership to, to move our country, our people forward in that direction. Yep. Yup.

08:37 It's a, it's also a good, great question and great way to frame it so that there is a lot of inertia in keeping things the way they are. A lot of inertia. So are a lot of businesses making an today and they like to keep it this way. There are a lot of people working for those businesses and changing that is really hard to do. The oil, gas and coal business is a trillion dollar industries and it's really hard to to make, to change it and also we have the way our regulations and and the, the way to deploy solar energy is also learn as we go type thing so we don't have, we need a smart plan to, to actually take full advantage of that low cost energy. So like there's no overall comprehensive plan. There is. Yes. Correct. It stole piecemeal planets. People evolve as they go.

Even Germany, we kind of spearheaded the world with their feeding tariff system. Now they are kind of running out of steam because the thing grew too much and didn't grow optimally as it should, as it could have. So now we have the opportunity in the US to actually grow solar energy optimally and eventually should fall allowed traction of nrg being powered by solar. So a question two is for our listeners, what can the individual do? I read somewhere that you yourself live in a passive solar house. Can you tell us a little about your house and we've had a solar house for since 1995, which is a passive house which. So we have heat, solar, heat from the sun through large windows. Where is your house? It's in just 10 minutes from here. And if you could describe what's involved in the construction, what makes a passive solar house that and also how costly is it?

Something for us it was a total no brainer. Okay. Why, why it a passive solar house is not all that different from a regular house except it has most of the windows on the south sides and those windows are bigs and the let the sunshine in to the house. So it must have been a lovely, lovely. So. And we also put a photovoltaic system way back then that that actually cost a lot then. But financially it was not that hard to do. We got a construction loan to build a new house and with everything including yourself or are there people out there that are working on designing me? I have a friend who came up with an idea of affordable solar, which is a factory built house, so it was delivered onsite, prebuilt for trucks, and it was a couple of days. Oh my goodness.

11:53 And you would not tell it's a factory build house. If you look at it today, it looks just like a regular house. And so it has all of your power in your house come from your followup. They taught photovoltaic taken. It was so expensive back then that we had on your Taquito what system that supplied about one third of the electricity, but two years ago we upgraded to a larger system that has enough electricity to power the whole electric bill plus to a hybrid electric cows. So my commute is, is he's worked on solar. So you are committed all the way with everything you do. Yes. Uh, but the message I gave her, the Labor is that that system, the system solar system we have today, the regulatory system enables people like me who kind of can afford it to go solo, even 100 percent solar through transportation and everything. However, this, this may be a not the ideal way to promote the, the big solar picture that we would like to see in, in the U, s sign other countries.

13:09 The idea always is to recognize that electricity is not an individual's people to do. It's a utility company to actually take care of it for me or solo world would be to when I turn on the switch and I get electricity working, I just want to know that that thing came from solar doesn't need to be on my roof, it needs to be the main supply needs to be solar. So what would interest companies and making that Germanic switch, how would that happen? They will. It's a matter of those companies not knowing the big picture yet. Um, and also the, the solar industry, nuts forwarding the, the, the good message out. Currently the solar industry and, and people like w own solar. I kind of fighting against the utility companies and the utility companies are, maybe you're resisting it. Um, if you understand solar on the power grid and the requirements you, you, you understand the way they are.

14:20 They are dragging their feet. We'll just unpack that a little for us. What is it we need to understand? So the thing about solar is that it's, it's a, it's a viable intermittent resource. So there is a cloudy day. It's down supplies down. There is a sunny day like today, like a battery batteries part of the equation, but it's far from the solution. I'll get back to that. But the thing is intermittent and when someone like me put a big system on their roof and there is a growing number of people who do that, they put it on the roof and then that's when they overproduced the greed takes it back and then when there is not enough we get it back from the grid. So we, we take the greed and the utility for granted like a giant battery system for us. So for me I'm 100 percent solar on a yearly basis, but on a, on a, on a cloudy day we can.

15:15 I'm not producing enough solar energy, but I'm still charging my car and using my electricity and people who are responsible to make that happen for me is the grid operator, the utilities that operate the green, so we have to facilitate utilities to embrace solar and currently, well not really doing it because there is no real plan to do that. Currently we are facilitating people to deploy solar on their roofs or they are businesses but not. There is no comprehensive solution to make it happen big time and that solution does exist. In fact, new research that I'm working with with my son market in California and some others really show that you can supply from electricity, so buy from, I mean 24 slash seven available as opposed to available on the on sunny days available at night on cloudy days in winter or summer at a.

16:18 A average production cost which is close or even less than what we produce electricity today using gas, oil, coal and nuclear. But what is that solution? So that solutioning involves battery. But if you, if that's the only solution you consider, it's never ever going to work. I can guarantee that to you, so people thing, battery storage, energy storage solution to make solar happen and if you work out the numbers and you calculate how much energy storage you need to supply solar 24 slash seven, you find out that that storage price will just kill the whole thing. It's going to cost like a dollar per kilowatt hour. So we had to think outside the box and and that's my son's phd at Columbia. I thought a little bit outside the box and he'd say let's overbuild solar and curtail it and propose fully waste some of it.

17:25 So say or have electricity for your. For your home mom, you need more like a thousand. So the conventional wisdom is saying I'm going to design a solar system that's going to produce my thousand kilowatt hour and then I'll let me iterate with the utility and then I'll zero in at the end of the Elf produce all the energy I need for my home. It breakeven. But in reality, you know that in winter you're going to under a produce and then some are you going to overproduce and someone will have to make sure that the balance works out for you. That's, that's the intermittency problem. If, if I were to build a battery in my house to do that myself, that battery would be gigantic and I would pay so much for it that I will not go for it. However, the solution is, if I overbuild my system, instead of shooting for 1000 kilowatt hour, I should fall to Quito. What our bigger system on all. I can afford a much, much smaller battery storage. Hsi Stem. So it's finding the sweet economical price between battery storage

18:40 up and down. You want to overbuild city. You can find this kind of middle ground when you don't need the big battery to help them.

18:47 Yes. On it, you find that economic sweet spots. Um, and that economic sweet spots in a state like Minnesota, we just did a study for the Minnesota solar pathways. And those results are amazing. Amazing. In what way? In terms of being able to produce electricity in that northern states, 24 slash seven year around at less than five cents per kilowatt hour for solar, because you think of Minnesota is very far north, right? It's not all that different from New York so otherwise, but it's. It's still considered northern states, but just thinking outside the box and the overbuilding solar minimize is the battery and lets you. So currently our system is not designed to do that at all. The only way to finance solar is to grab every single ounce of energy produces and monetize it. To make your investment pay off. It's, it's an anathema to say going to overbuild and waste half of it. However, the road to the cheapest from solar electricity is overbuilding.

20:00 Yeah, you're right. That is thinking outside the box because most of us have the old fashioned fossil fuel model where the oil or the coal costs a certain amount, so over producing it would be egg, you know as you say anathema, but if it's free and it's solar and sun and you overproduce it, you haven't lost any. Are you

20:22 still have to buy the modules and everything, but, but this event, even if you work out all the numbers with pv photovoltaic at its expected future costs and batteries are their expert, that future costs, you can find that optimum minimum sweet spots where you can actually say, I can guarantee 24 slash seven, 365 days a year, pure energy at x amount and that x is not. He's not a high amounts.

20:53 So this is your sons. It's a phd thesis at Columbia.

20:57 Yeah, you finished it like three years ago. Nice. Putting it in.

21:00 That's the next step. How do you get people to actually embrace that and he's doing it again?

21:06 Activities. Yeah. He's involved in a project in Minnesota from the US doe. The results will come out in a, in a matter of weeks now and they're really far reaching on.

21:16 And is this an industry where. I know you're an editor on. I have it written down here, Solar Energy Journal. Is this an industry where people are all sort of reading the same journals and following each other and it's likely. Yeah.

21:28 Yeah. Many journals and information sometimes takes funny ways to travel so that overbuilding is still totally unknown by all decision makers and the people who make regulations and everything and at least in New York states in my presentation in Guilderland, Minnesota because we are just finished that study and the results are going to come out and we had the regulators and utility companies. They as part of the project, it turns out they are going to embrace that. I have a project with a French utility company in in an island very similar to Puerto Rico, which is in the Indian Ocean and I'm going there in a couple of weeks. That island, it's called Larry Noon island. It's near Madagascar. Oh, okay. It's a million people that live there, so it's, it's a. and they have a very similar to Puerto Rico in many ways size wise and population wise and they are looking at doing the agreed mostly solar and of course they need from electricity so they are going to apply those techniques and we're starting that project with them in a, in a couple of weeks. Fascinating. Yeah. So you had a map of New York and I say, well, this is a good example of not being a prophet in Pinot in one's own country because in New York have not been able to convince anybody about the wisdom of that approach yet. I hope I will,

22:54 but this island that you're going to, you're like a consultant there and they're following your advice in order to build this system that will

23:03 over produced, defined. That's what you call the sweet spot with them on. Yeah. We are working with a local university there on the University of Lorraine Yon and the the utility company, the French utility company, edf to actually study that and come up with the optimal solution for. For them to. To supply electricity.

23:26 Well, talking about New York, here's the problem. I've personally experienced, if you can shed any light, so to speak on this ice and my husband signed up for community solar for our house because we're right under the hell or bruce garment is great, right? But we did this almost two years ago with a company that keeps sending us very nice emails

23:46 and basically they can't find a place that will take their. They, they told us when we signed up, oh this will just be a matter of months. It'll be online and they've now like looked for smaller and smaller parcels that, that zoning will allow people to, you know, allow them to build it because there is no, no, no plan to make that kind of thing happening in, in the most intelligent way. Currently it's piecemeal, but I'm just wondering, adapting to the regulations in place and trying to find their niche. So you have some pretty strange things. Like there is something that developed a few years ago called remote net metering that was so you don't have, you don't have it on your roof so you put it somewhere else, but you're still getting the credit for the education. You started this idea. You and electrically doesn't make any sense and it infuriates the grid operators because legally and financially people find their way.

24:50 So we have regulations and people are playing with a regulation system to make things happen. So, um, the system doesn't enable the small thing to happen. For me, the smart thing to happen, it would be lead the utility, take control of managing the, the solar on the storage and everything because they know their business, they know what to do with electricity transfer. They don't need to own the PV. That could still be owned by people like you and me through community solar. But currently the way community solar works does, it doesn't work that way. Just try to adapt to the regulations. The other problem seems to be there's a negative mindset of like, I don't want this in my backyard. That's where people we've covered in the towns that we cover. Several solar projects were neighbors, tram force and they don't want to have what they consider their views ruined. And I know some solution to this.

26:02 There is no solution to human behavior. I guess if you look at say utility Poles, you could think they were ugly, but we're used to taking, taking the big picture, taking a huge step back and looking at the big picture. I would like to show a diagram in the microphone but describe it with words. So we looked at in Minnesota case and even us wide, if you want to supply 100 percent of the electricity for the state of the whole country, the us, we did that as well. You're going to overbuild solar, get that tweets, economic spots. How much space will that will that solar occupy? How much space will be on the ground? On the ground? Yes. Yes. For the US, the number is 8,500 square miles, so it's a big number, right? Eighty 500 sounds big until you put it in perspective. The U s is 8 million square kilometers, so it's some tiny fraction and for electricity purposes today we're already using twice as much space with hydro power.

27:20 All those lakes, lakes, the lakes, that surface area, you're saying it's greater surface area by about 15,000 lakes and they only produce five percent of the electricity we use. And your model would present day, although it's probably a reality. Yeah, you would do 100 percent with have the surface and so it's a big number and it can be infuriating if it's in front of you all the time, but it's, it represents about less than the surface occupied by high density urban development today. So it's not a big amount and it's one percent of the crop land. So imagine every field of crop with the one percent dedicated to, to supply in you 100 percent solar electricity forever, which not a bad deal, but there is no plan to enable that today. But the physics and the tells us that that is so way to go.

28:23 So again, it sounds like you're running into walls lot. You've done the research, you have the theory, but what you're lacking

28:32 some kind of a planning mechanism that would allow these things to send my. My approach is not to beat my head against the wall forever because it again, to be headache at the end of the day, it's to go where the flow is moving positively and it's trunk in Minnesota is the right place to do that in an island, maybe France as well in some other place and when that gets exposed, maybe the New York Times will pick up something happening in Minnesota when they come out public with those results then then it's a bandwagon, so I hope that it will work that way as opposed to me trying to knock on the door of the PSC and them thinking I'm a crackpot. Ivory Tower scientist had heard that. Do you get that a lot? I get that early bit. Yeah.

29:19 Yeah. I retired ivory tower scientists because it seems to me like your feet are so firmly on the ground. You know you're doing all this behind him on the wall here. Just tell us what these are,

29:31 but this is a study. We did that now almost 12 years ago for the province of Quebec. We had developed that technique to monitor the amount of available solar energy father taking, using remote sensing from satellites, so now we do that everywhere around the globe. You can tell me a place on the planet and I can tell you how much solar energy they are getting right now. How much they're going to get to using the forecast looks like for listeners is it looks like kind of marvelous modern art because there are different color. It must represent different. Yeah. The rhetoric gets the online or do you get on the Bluer? It gets the less energy you get, so I really. There's a half an hour went so fast. I can't thank you enough. Is there any kind of closing thought that you'd like to leave our listeners with?

30:24 Any last words? Closing thoughts? Well, go to go to my website and look at the page. What is your website? You Google Richard Perez solar and it will be first on the, on the list and then you will see the. I have a little diagram that compares the energy resources of the planet on it. You can see that solar is a thousand times bigger than anything else, coal or oil, all, all the fossil fuels and all the renewables, so when when I hear someone in in challenging quotes telling me that when we need an Nrg basket, we cannot. We cannot put all the eggs in solid. For me, it's like it's goes contrary to the physical evidence. Solo is thousand times bigger than anything else. It's power the planet for millions of years so we can really count on it to power us for the future without having to rely on a, on a basket of other stuff like oil or gas or what whatnot. Excellent. Okay. Thank you so much.


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