Solar vs the Grid
By Teja Crawford
Can our current grid handle-all electric buildings?
Fully electric buildings and cars are becoming the standard as society moves away from fossil fuels. While this sounds good in theory, can our electric grid handle this transition? This is a great question, especially when you consider that most of our power grid and electricity lines are over 25 years old. With the combination of climate change causing increased demand for heating and cooling plus the electrification of cars and buildings we are already putting a lot of stress onto our electric grid. There have been several cases we have seen failure already. In California, city officials have had to urge utility customers to limit their electricity use or face outages during heat waves.
At the same time, California is setting a goal to phase out selling nonelectric cars by 2035. Additionally, a number of building codes have been put in place to ensure that buildings are either fully electric or have electric hookups to become fully electric in the future. Experts are confident that the transition to fully electric will not become a problem. This is because the transition to full electrification is happening gradually, giving the utility companies time to update their infrastructure to withstand the growing demand. Since the electricity infrastructure is already due for an upgrade, creating more opportunities for electric cars and buildings is a part of this progression.
Another place our grid falls short is connectivity with renewable resources. As the industry has been so fossil fuel dependent for so long, there is currently a lack of renewable energy or places for renewable sources to connect to the main grid. Onsite renewable energy avoids this problem. Creating your own local power takes demand away from the grid while eliminating power loss during transmission, a very resilient method during those peak demand and extreme weather days. Solar power is a popular way to achieve the goal of onsite renewable energy. But these solar panels do not last forever.
What happens to solar panels and accompanying batteries?
Solar panels have a life span of about 25-30 years. This means that a number of first generation solar panels are reaching the end of their useful life. These panels will have to be removed and ideally the materials will be reused or recycled. Solar panels are built to last a long time; therefore, they are hard to disassemble into their different components- a necessary step for recycling. This is a more intensive process than the recycling of more common materials. Since there has been a low demand for solar panel recycling so far, recyclers have not built out the amount of infrastructure that will be needed to sufficiently handle the incoming number of panels that will need to be recycled. However, there are already some programs in place to ensure the proper disposal of these materials. Regulated solar panel recycling ensures that these waste materials do not end up in the landfill.
Batteries are an important component when using renewable energy. Without proper storage, solar energy can be unreliable and unable to keep up with the ebbs and flows of daily power usage. Proper battery disposal has become a hot topic due to the increase of electric vehicles (EVs). These larger batteries start to become less powerful long before they stop working completely. This means in many cases they can be repurposed for less intensive uses. Batteries that are taken out of an EV are often used as energy storage for grid or source energy generation. When batteries cannot be repurposed or are no longer functioning there is potential for recycling. Their valuable components including cobalt, lithium salts, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, and plastic are extracted and recycled. However, as of now only half of the materials are typically recycled. Manufacturers and recyclers are working towards increasing their capability to recycle all materials.
With the recent Title 24 building code update, effective January 1, 2023, more projects require solar PV plus a new battery requirement. The amount of solar required is based on solar access roof area (SARA) or conditioned floor area. SARA includes roof structural capable of supporting PV, and roof space on covered parking areas and other new structures on the site. For nonresidential and high-rise multifamily buildings that are required to have PV, they must also have batteries.
Our electric grid and solar panel/battery recycling have a few things in common. Firstly, the infrastructure has room for improvement to meet the projected demand. Secondly, they are going to have to increase their infrastructure to keep up with the coming demand. Electrifying in the way of the future means that manufacturers, recyclers, and planners are going to have to keep up. Design team members can play their part in specifying all electric equipment, infrastructure, and onsite renewable energy. Verdical Group is experienced with building code requirements, modeling energy, and calculating carbon to support teams in guiding the decision-making. Collectively we all play a part in advocating and moving electrification forward for a cleaner, resilient method of energy.