Green Electrons and Brown Electrons

Solar technology is magical. Though the tech for them has been around for decades, solar is a great example of Arthur C Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Think about it. Solar panels generate energy to power our air conditioners, computers and cars simply through exposure to the sun.

Nonetheless, carbon-dirty technologies like coal and gas have advantages over solar… Coal is a form of stored energy, while solar is simply a form of energy. In other words, coal can be used to generate power at 10pm. Solar obviously can’t.

Today, green electrons flow when weather permits. Brown electrons flow whenever you need them.

A consequence of that truth is that folks who have deployed solar panels actually need a lot of brown electrons. Sure, they may be offsetting brown electrons with overgeneration of green electrons during the day, but they’re not really operating green. Those users still drive considerable demand for oil and gas generation in the late afternoon, evening and night.

That dynamic presents a problem for solar in the long run, if not solved. There are only so many electrons that we need at noon. It puts a ceiling on solar’s growth.

At this point, you might say “Fine, but we’re nowhere near deploying enough solar to power all daytime energy consumption.” That’s true, but given solar’s variability, utilities run into real issues well before that.

Advanced solar markets are already running into the problem. At a market level, it’s referred to as the Duck Curve problem. We’re seeing it manifest in places like Hawaii, California, and Nevada. Not surprisingly, utilities in these states are pushing back on the relentless growth of solar.

While I’m sympathetic to the challenges created for utilities in these scenarios, I’m not making a case for limits on solar.

I’m making a case for matching solar generation with consumer load. That is, storing excess green electrons when they are generated and releasing them later when they are needed. I am making a case for batteries.

To be intellectually honest about a zero carbon footprint, one must eliminate a user’s need for brown electrons.

Yes, there are challenges in getting there. Batteries are expensive. Manufacturing them is not a clean process.

Without question, we need to focus attention on addressing both battery cost and sustainable manufacturing. Advancing battery technology is a worthwhile horizon to sail toward.

I’ve identified a number of strategies for developing battery technology and reducing manufacturing costs. I offer a number of them in this post.

I’m all about scaling production of green electrons and making them work at scale by matching them with load. I welcome your help to drive that outcome at scale.

Brian Lakamp