Joseph Hui , an Arizona State University engineering researcher, is more educated than we are about energy issues, as he reminded us in a recent email exchange.
But we can't help but stick to our "uneducated" opinions when it comes to some of his claims.
Like his prediction that in 10 years, power utilities like Arizona Public Service will serve as nothing more than "backup."
Hui, founder of a solar-power company called Monarch, is one of the solar-power believers with whom we've cyber-sparred in recent months. He's a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and helped Hong Kong build its Internet infrastructure. Currently, he's the International Switching Symposium Chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering at ASU and the Interim Director of the Telecommunications Research Center in the College of Engineering. These days, he calls himself "Solar Man."
No, we're not climate-change deniers, "industry shills," (as one reader likes to call us), or even all that anti-solar. However, as we've pointed out in the past, solar is far from perfect. It isn't saving the world, can't provide true "baseload" power and requires hefty taxpayer subsidies. It's worth looking into -- without rose-colored sunglasses.
We've found that emphasizing its problems draws a lot of heat from solar advocates, many of whom treat the subject as sacred and above criticism.
We'd put Hui in the category of solar zealot. He emailed us out of the blue earlier this month, clearly a little ticked at the conclusions of our July feature article about the money utilities pay to residential solar customers for the electricity they generate. Our article pointed out that APS is probably right in that paying solar users retail rates for their electricity results in a cost shift to non-solar customers -- an opinion backed up this month by the Arizona Corporation Commission's staff recommendation on net metering.
We managed to perturb Hui after a few days of emailing, leaving him to sign off with a final message noting that he found us "unpleasant." We promise that we didn't call him names or insult his mother. As far as we could tell, what he found unpleasant were our incessant questions.
Hui's company is trying to create a niche in small, "mobile" solar-power units that unfurl like a flower. In March, Governor Jan Brewer and Susan Bitter Smith, a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, touted entrepreneurs like Hui after meeting him during a solar-power demonstration.
We're not going to claim Hui's company won't succeed, or that his products aren't well-built. However, we can't help but recognize the fact that products like the Lotus Mobile, which can power a refrigerator while the sun is shining, aren't very practical. Sure, African tribesmen who want to log on to the Internet for weather reports could use a Lotus Mobile, but that's not an ideal target market.
As it is, Hui's products already receive huge subsidies, which Hui claims are not subsidies. The Lotus Mobile, his website says, costs $6,650, and state and federal tax credits repay $2,500 of that. (Three grand of the total is financed over 10 years.)
We asked Hui if he supports extending the 30-percent-off discount on solar installations offered by the federal government, scheduled to expire in 2016. Here's how he answered:
"Yes, because I don't consider that a subsidy. There is hidden social cause of burning coal and meeting peak demand. I got $2.75perW 4 years ago from SRP, and they paid willingly in place of building peak demand," he wrote. But he added that he'd also have to answer "no," because "really I don't need it though I deserve it."
Why does he deserve it? "Think energy independence and freedom from ME oil," he says.
Yet that's a somewhat disingenuous answer.
Hui certainly needs the government money now in order to sell his products, as the Lotus Mobile example shows. And the idea that something like the Lotus Mobile will be palatable to the public with no subsidies in just three years is way too optimistic, in our uneducated opinion.
Hui, though, claims that prices on solar equipment will come down so much, the industry will dominate other energy sources in just 10 years.
"Centralized electricity only generation has enjoyed a 100 year success and shall be in 10 years serves only for power backup," he wrote.
That would be great. But as the link above to our December article shows, the sobering reality is that fossil fuels are expected to dominate electricity generation in the United States for decades to come. Renewable resources like solar and wind will help cut down carbon pollution and save energy, but won't provide more than about 16 percent of the electricity by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Hui believes something different -- he sees a solar-powered world coming in the near future. Not only will the technology improve enough to allow this happen, he claims, but people will alter their lifestyles dramatically. (We're sure he's right about the tech and the culture -- but doubt it will be anything like soon.)
To Hui, going "off the grid" can be done right now, and cheaply: "Battery needed is not that much should one decide to go off grid. 3 marine size 100Ah batteries would do lighting and fridge."
We told him how much juice our energy-wasting residence consumes, (we won't embarrass ourselves by repeating it here), and asked how many batteries it would take to use a solar-and-battery system to take our home off the grid.
Hui steadfastly declined to answer. But he's not off the grid, either.
"Eventually I'll go off the grid," he says. "I don't want SRP to buy my electricity. I honestly don't care if they kill rooftop solar, as I think rooftop solar is too costly, (other solar systems) will bring solar cost down to $2/W from the current $4/W, and mark my word, that will happen in the next 5 years to make APS suitable only for backup in 10."
Central air-conditioning is overrated, Hui believes.
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"Turn on your space AC instead of central air at night," he wrote. "Go back to evaporative cooling and absorption chilling that is far more cost effective."
Hui dreams of a wonderfully efficient, low-energy future. But 10 years from now?
We don't think so.
What do you think?