He would know. The former Greenpeace campaigner turned solar power entrepreneur is riding a surge of interest in the renewable technology, spurred by economic rather than environmental imperatives.
“The solar industry grew 40 percent during the recession,” he tells Minivan News.
“The average price in the US is now US$0.24 a kilowatt, which makes solar power already a third cheaper than grid electricity in the Maldives.”
The Australian environmental campaigner ran Greenpeace campaigns across the Pacific in places such as Papa New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji, prior to moving to the United States and founding Sungevity, the residential solar company that is now the third largest such provider in the country after just a few years in operation.
Kennedy is in town to oversee the pro-bono installation of 48 photovoltaic (PV) modules on the roof of Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed’s house, ‘Muleaage’, which convert solar radiation into direct current electricity using photovoltaic semiconductors.
Nasheed has already agreed to personally help install the units, which Kennedy expects will save the country US$300,000 in electricity over the 25-year warrantied lifespan of the units.
Sungevity calculated the solar production potential of Nasheed’s roof from its office in Oakland California, using aerial images from Microsoft’s mapping software.
The method uses a fiendishly clever piece of trigonometry developed by a young student from Sydney Grammar School in Australia, that takes the altitude of the photographing plane from the image’s metadata then uses trigonometry to calculate the angle and direction of the potential customer’s roof, and then plugs in known quantities such as the area’s solar potential and price of electricity.
The result is that customers can determine the amount of electricity the unit will generate and potential savings, over the internet, “with plus or minus one percent margin of error. That’s better than sending a kid onto the roof with a tape measure, which introduces human error.”
The schoolboy’s innovation stunned the Redmond heavyweight sent over to Sungevity from Microsoft to see how the software worked, who told Kennedy that the company couldn’t have done such a thing “with 300 of our own engineers.”
Installing the units on Nasheed’s roof is now the last phase of the operation.
“We installed the rails today, and we’ll install the PV modules over the next few days. There are still some conduits to install to the generating room, and some carpentry to do,” Kennedy explains.
As the President’s house is connected to the grid in Male’, the solar cells will feed electricity back into the grid and help power the city when Nasheed is not running the air conditioning or using the microwave.
“My sense is that he’s trying to do something symbolic and make a statement about solutions to climate change,” Kennedy said. “He seems to be trying to lead by example.”
The light stuff
The driving force behind solar power is now economic, says Kennedy.
While the capital expenditure for a small unit runs to US$30,000, installations in countries like the US are heavily incentivised and banks are increasingly offering ‘solar financing’ so customers can avoid the upfront hit.
“Solar is now about saving money,” Kennedy says. “The US and Australia give cashback on solar installations, while in the EU the model is a feed-in tariff. In Germany the model pays 40 euro cents per kilowatt hour, so if you install a solar system with a 20 year lifespan, you can sit back and let the thing turn a profit.”
As a result, “Germany‘s projected installation this year is 7000 megawatts – by comparison, Male’s powerplant generates 38.76 megawatts.”
The UK is not far behind Germany, with a proposed 31 pence feed-in tariff: “The UK solar market is going to go gangbusters in the next few years,” Kennedy says.
Feed-in tariffs are the fastest way to promote quick adoption of the technology, Kennedy explains, but incentive models – cashback and feed-in tariffs – “take on the vested interests involved in fossil fuels.”
“The Maldives can move to clean fuel, hedging against fuel price rises while taking on the vested interests of incumbent technology,” Kennedy suggests.
The flat and predictable cost of solar power contrasts with that of fossil fuels, he says, which are expensive for a country like the Maldives to import, subject to price flucutations, and vulnerable to Middle Eastern instability.
“While a small system may cost up to $30,000, it will pay itself back tenfold over its lifespan. It’s a safe and predictable return on investment,” he says.
In the US at least, the price of grid electricity is rising by seven percent per annum, Kennedy explains. The cost of solar units is meanwhile plummeting as production of the devices, led by China, skyrockets.
“Every doubling in production of PV modules represents an 18 percent reduction in price,” Kennedy explains.
“The Chinese have noticed this are increasing production massively, and have doubled production twice in the last three years. There has been a 50 percent drop in price in the last 18 months.”
A country like the Maldives with comparatively low energy requirements has the potential to meet much of its energy demands through a combination of solar, wind and wet (tidal) renewable energy generation, Kennedy suggests, as well as create a great many jobs in the sector.
And if the German experience is anything to go by, that expertise is soon going to be in high demand across the world.
“German companies like Bosch said early on that they are going to become better at this that anyone else, and manage the IP (intellectual property). Now, it’s German engineering staff who are running the Chinese production lines.”
The Maldives could develop its own expertise, Kennedy suggests: “the challenges of powering an isolated island in the Maldives are similar to those of a town in the Australian outback,” he notes.
Kennedy sees the future of power generation as working rather like the internet, running as a grid with many small generators feeding into the system rather than the centralised production and distribution of power.
“I’m not a great advocate of large-scale power plant development, solar or otherwise,” Kennedy says. “It risks replicating the mistakes of the past – it’s a Faustian bargain you make, as with Edison: ‘Give us lights in the streets and we’ll give you a regulated monopoly.’”
Because of the pollution profile, plants are also located further from population centres and up to 30 percent of electricity generated is lost in transmission.
“There are new high-voltage DC lines becoming available but uptake is not substantial,” Kennedy says, predicting a future where power generation is controlled by the consumer and with less wasteful transmission.
“Who pays for that bit in lost in the middle?” he asks: “The public purse.”
With 50 percent of the world’s solar installations in Germany, weather is no longer as great a limiting factor of solar technology either, Kennedy says.
The principle obstacle has rather been one of “political will” – which Nasheed will demonstrate when he clambers onto his roof over the next few days to poses for photos with his new PV cells. Clearly a publicity stunt – but nonetheless a bright idea.