205: Vertical Solar Panels?


Matt and Sean talk about a subtle change with (potentially) big impact for solar panel power production. Should we have been doing this all along?

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, Have we been doing Solar wrong all along? https://youtu.be/LqizLQDi9BM?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7

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On today’s episode of Still to be Determined, we’re going to be talking about turning that frown upside. Well, no, we’re not turning the frown upside down. We’re turning it sideways. So it’s a smirk. Hey everybody, I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci fi. I write some stuff for kids. And I’m just generally curious about technology.

And luckily for me, my brother is that Matt of Undecided with Matt Ferrell, which takes a look at emerging tech and its impact on our lives. Matt, how are you doing this fine day? I’m doing great. It’s uh,

this past week was a little exhausting. Um, my next video that’s coming out on the channel, which actually by the time this audio, this, this podcast is out, that video will be out.

It’s about the Apple Vision Pro and I did, I normally don’t turn videos around very quickly. That one got turned around really fast. So it was a very

intense week. As a participant in his research on it, I can tell you, you’ll want to check it out. You will definitely want to jump in as soon as it drops and take a look at it because it is for lack of a better word, uncanny.

But we’ll talk about that video in more detail. Next week, following week, this week, we’re going to talk about a couple of our previous episodes and Matt’s most recent. And before we talk about Matt’s most recent, I wanted to share a comment from our most recent, which was our conversation around China’s solar power development and its impacts.

And there was some bit. There was a bit of conversation around EVs and power consumption and pollution, and a comment from Brian Mullins. He jumped in to say, at about 16 minutes 30, you mentioned pollutant reduction by doing X versus Y. This is something I have wondered about. Read assumed, doesn’t the pressure to move to electric vehicles, just move the pollution caused by gas powered vehicles from the cities they run in to the cities the electricity is generated in.

Solar is getting bigger, but aren’t we still mostly dependent on coal and LNG generation in the U S is the relationship between vehicle pollution and these plants offsetting. Wanted to open that up for feedback from you. My understanding is that it is not a one to one. You do not burn a certain amount of dirty energy, pollutant creation energy, and put that same amount as you would gasoline into a car.

My understanding is that the correlation between the two is if you have a hundred cars running on gasoline, it puts out a certain amount of pollution. If you have a hundred cars that run on electricity produced by a plant, it’s a lesser amount of pollution because the plant is more efficient in its energy creation.

Am I right in that? Basically,

basically, I did a video on this, wow, uh, four or five years ago. It was near the beginning of my channel about EV myths. And one of them is this point exactly. If you have an EV, In a area that is 100 percent coal power, like the dirtiest you could have, it’s 100 percent coal.

It’s still coming out ahead versus a gasoline car, even in that scenario, because like you mentioned, it’s not a one to one equation. The amount of pollutants coming out of the back of a tailpipe is not the same. as the amount of pollutants coming out of that power plant. Um, it’s, it’s, it’s different levels.

An electric vehicle is so efficient with the energy it uses. You’re talking about a car that might be using 90 percent of the energy that’s in the battery is going to the wheels. And an ICE vehicle, you’re talking maybe 30 percent is getting to those wheels is

radically different. So to get the same amount of same amount of torque requires more energy consumption from a ICE vehicle as opposed to EV.

Correct. And so these power plants, efficiency is going to be way higher than that in a power plant. It’s still beneficial to go to EVs even if you don’t change your power plant infrastructure. On that point, that is changing, and if you look at just the past 5 10 years, how the mix of our electricity in the United States is shifting.

It is getting cleaner every single year. So if we all flip to EVs today, it’s a step in the right direction. And then over the next decade, they’ll get cleaner and cleaner and cleaner because the power generation is getting cleaner and cleaner and cleaner. You can’t say that for a nice vehicle. Nice vehicle is dirty forever, where electric vehicles are a step in the right direction no matter what you’re doing.

And then over time, it will just get better and


I would also suggest that for Brian and people who have been working under this assumption, there is value in looking at those connective lines and saying, well, if I’m doing this over here and I’m getting it sourced by this other entity over here.. What is the connective line between the two?

There is value in that, but there is also value in sometimes severing those lines and thinking in isolation. There is value to say, like, if I get an electric vehicle, then I will be reducing my carbon footprint. I will be doing things that are beneficial and I will know that on my side, I am doing something of value.

And the reason I suggest that is because ultimately the biggest impact that you can make as an individual, there is what you consume, perhaps buying an electric vehicle versus an ICE vehicle. But then there is also what you’re advocating for. Advocating for your local policies to change, for your local power plants to be converted, for moving renewable energy into your local grid.

Is in the longterm going to have a bigger impact than an electric vehicle purchase, because there is such a huge percentage. And, and we’ve operated under a misnomer in the U S I think for a long while in talking about electric vehicles as if that is the best and biggest solution. And ultimately it’s not.

Ultimately, advocating for a shift in the sourcing of the power grid to renewables is going to have a bigger impact on how much greenhouse gas the United States produces, and globally, that’s the biggest shift we need to be working for, so these things are connected, obviously, and there is value in reminding ourselves about these connections and saying, well, if I’m doing this here, I What is the chain of connective tissue to the other sources, but there is also value in reminding yourself, Oh, I want to purchase an electric vehicle for my own greenhouse gas production.

But then it’s also separate from the bigger culprit in the room, which is the companies that are producing these things using dirty gases, dirty, dirty sources that then the electric vehicle is not going to

solve. Not to go completely off a tangent, but like in academic circles. There’s a kind of a pervasive view from the people I’ve talked to about this, that is, as individuals, we can do nothing to, to change this.

And it’s only, it’s all beholden upon, uh, political will. It’s all based on industry and commercial companies. To make the shift because that’s where the bulk of everything happens and I bristle at that a little bit because as an individual, I do have sway on that. Like commercial industry goes to where people are willing to buy and use things.

So if I’m making a choice to buy an EV to do, to do things that are greener and better. Companies are going to see that shift in what consumers want and they’ll follow it. So it’s like, I don’t see it as like from the academic point of view, it’s not an either or. It’s not about us as individuals and it’s not just about industry, commercial and government kind of level stuff.

It’s, it’s both like people make up the industry, people make up governments. So it’s like if you can get people to kind of want these things. It will actually help persuade the large scale stuff. So EVs is consumer level of like us driving, I want an EV, but us doing that also helps to persuade more companies to make EVs.

It does. It persuades more commercial industries to do cleaner energy production and things like that. So it’s, it’s a, I don’t know, yin and yang. I don’t know. It’s like, it’s kind of a mix of these two things together. It’s not. It occurred to

me as you were talking, it’s, it’s an ecosystem. Yes. It is, it’s to say, oh, there, there’s no, on the individual level, there’s no value in trying to do a thing because your impact is going to be negligible is in fact a flipping of the argument that how is my gas vehicle causing a problem?

Like it’s, they are effectively demonstrating the same kind of narrow bandwidth of thinking as the person who’s arguing me picking a different vehicle isn’t going to have an impact. And, and as you’re saying, consumption of certain products is like a public vote. And that, in effect, is, like, producers of things are constantly tracking what we do.

There’s a reason why we talk about, like, you’re being tracked online, you’re, like, every, every website you go to is being monitored. Well, think about that for a moment. If you are a person in the world and your consumption is heavily steeped with pro environmental Product. If you are, in fact, being tracked, somebody somewhere is like, Hmm, we want to market to that guy, but we make garbage products.

Let’s develop one that’s eco friendly. So that’s, it’s part of an ecosystem. You’re part, you’re, you’re voting with your wallet constantly. Yep. Also from an earlier episode, this is from episode 203, in which we discussed Matt’s trip to CES 2024, and there was a conversation in there about the humanoid shaped robots that Matt had seen.

And our discussion around, is this something of value? Is this something useful? And there was a. Comment from old gamer noob, I love the name by the way, who jumped in to say, even for those of us who don’t really need help picking something up, if there is tech now to pick up whatever we ask it to, a robot that would keep tabs on where everything is in the house, and I could ask it, where did I leave my car keys?

Bring them to me. Would be a much better use to me of a household robot than just a smart speaker. Reading this comment, I suddenly pulled a 180, and I now want a humanoid robot in my house at all times. Because you wouldn’t believe how often I walk around saying, I just had it in my hand. Where did I leave it?

I know it’s here somewhere. Or the number of times where I have taken multiple trips up and downstairs because I need to pick up my coffee cup, my pen, and my glasses. I go downstairs and I pick up my coffee cup. I go upstairs. I forgot my glasses and my pen. I go back downstairs, pick up my glasses. I go upstairs.

I forgot the pen. I have to go downstairs. Gamer Noob, your robot idea of just a fetch it bot. Did I just brand name that? I think I did. Uh, the fetch it bot to say like, Hey, go, go find my glasses. Like have it toddle away. And then 15 minutes later it comes back with glasses and I can just lie in my bed and not move.

We’re going to turn into Wally Sean, the, the, the big kind of like bulbous sausage finger people that float around. It’s like, that’s. That’s going to be it. Yeah.

We’re going to dream of growing pizza plants.

And from Matt’s most recent, we have, have we been doing solar wrong all along? This is from February 6th, 2024. And this is the kind of discovery that feels like it might’ve been invented by mistake. Uh, it occurred to me that this seems almost like. Somebody somewhere was like, well, this, this one panel’s kind of at a weird angle, but we’re going to leave it.

And they were like, that panel’s doing a great job. What’s going on here? Ultimately this, I, I like that the analysis you took to this in looking at all the different facets, I couldn’t help, but as I was watching it thinking, Right at the beginning, well, it’s the heat, it’s the heat, and it boils down to the heat.

And it’s the simplicity of if you have lawn furniture in your yard and the sun comes out and then you try and sit down on them, the one that is at the discreet angle is the coolest one. And yet they’ve all been in the sun. So it was like, well, yes. And I also appreciate the fact that they discovered that on cloudy and overcast days or in a snowy environment, the energy production benefits there as well.

It’s, is this kind of shaping thinking around. All of the impact of angle and where you are is less important than simply having a good functional panel. Like, is this kind of boiling it down to the basics of, if the equipment is in good shape, it should do what it’s supposed to. As opposed to the nuance of, is my house facing the right direction?

I don’t know if it is, but that is something that I constantly am battling with when I talk about solar panels. And I even have battled with this with solar panel companies, like my last house. Not a great candidate for solar. Roof facing east west, that whole thing. I went to Tesla. Wanted to get Tesla solar panels on my roof and they basically wouldn’t do it.

They just told me it’s not worth it. And then they stopped returning my, my calls. They literally just walked away from me. So I found a local installer and they only wanted to put panels on one side of my roof. And I was like, but then what happens halfway through the day when now the sun’s on the other side?

Can we put panels on both sides? They were like, uh, we don’t think that’s going to be really worth it for you. And I was like, well, I want to do it. So they’re like,

okay, we’ll do

it. And guess what? The side I asked them to put it on. When you looked at the data, actually got more energy production than the side that they only wanted to put it on.

So they only wanted to put it on the backside of the house, and I told them to put it on the front side of the house. And when you looked at the actual production over the course of a year, because I can see it by the panel, the front side was more productive per panel. The backside, which was what they were doing because that’s the standard I was facing as close to South as we can get.

So you in effect had a lab environment working where you were testing this exact theory, the discrete angle of those panels, less heat, higher energy production. Yes,

it does. Angle does matter. And in my house was still not an ideal candidate. It’s like the amount of kilowatt panels I had on my house. It was not operating at a hundred percent efficiency for the way it was.

It was way lower than that. But for the value for me as a homeowner, it’s like, how much energy am I creating that I’m offsetting? And what was the cost of getting that was absolutely worth it. So yeah, it wasn’t as efficient as if my roof was facing South. And it was at the right angle, but it was still producing what I needed it to produce and what I expected it to produce.

That’s the big, big thing. And I think there’s,

there’s a weird because it’s almost like the, it’s almost like you went into a shoe store and said, I’d like those shoes because I have foot pain. And they, the person at the shoe store was like, no, because this won’t cure your foot pain. Yeah. Like it’s like, but it’s going to help.

I want to wear that because it’ll help. But your, your underlying foot problem will still be there. So I’m not going to sell you those shoes. Well, it’s really kind of astounding. That was Tesla’s whole

thing, which was, they told me it’s like your, your, this setup for your roof will only produce like, and it was 60.

I think what they had spec’d out was going to be 60%. Efficiency for the size of the system. And they were like, anything below 70 we won’t do. And then just walked away. And when I had the other people put it on the front of the house, we got it up to something like 68%. So it’s still technically was under 70.

But I kept saying, I kept saying to people like, Why does that matter? Why do you care when my goal

is to free push electricity? Can I speculate about why they might matter? Why? For their marketing. But how? They would want to be able to say, they would want to be able to say, We have a certain standard on all our panels.

Our panels are guaranteed to do a certain percentage of efficiency.

No, but Sean, that’s not the, that’s not the thing. It’s like, okay, so the company I went with, the, Array they put in, they gave me a spec sheet of how much energy I could expect per year. It had nothing to do with that efficiency percentage.

It was with this system, you can expect 7, 622 kilowatt hours of energy every year. That’s the number that matters. It’s not the actual efficiency of the setup. It’s like, I’m trying to cover at least two thirds of my electricity use. Oh, that covers two thirds of my electricity use and it costs X dollars, which means it’ll be paid off in eight years.

Sign me up. It’s like, why would I care about the efficiency? And Tesla just

walked away from it because of the efficiency. Yeah, what I’m saying is, from their marketing perspective, not from actual efficiency, but from marketing, I can understand a company saying, we want to have a big, red, Sticker on the, on the product that says guaranteed to give you at least 70 percent efficiency, but they don’t, it doesn’t actually, they don’t do it.

Right. But I just wonder if there’s some kind of marketing team that it’s like, we have to draw a line so that we can, we can use this number to our advantage as opposed to the science team in the back. That’s like, what are you talking about? Just put another panel on there and make sure the homeowner’s happy.

Like you’re saying, it is always possible to get to the happy place. By adding more and they’re somebody in their team is thinking in terms of some other metric and I bet it’s marketing. It just sounds like marketing speak to me. Well, it’s, it’s,

I mean, to get back to the question exactly that you asked, it’s.

There’s also, I think there’s a perception of solar only makes sense in certain regions. So like, you’d think Florida and Arizona, places that are super sunny. In the United States, the number one state for solar is California. That’s not going to surprise anybody. You know, one I think it’s number two. I think it’s number two.

It’s Massachusetts where I am. You would not think northeast region in the United States would actually be super popular for solar. We’re nowhere near as efficient as Southern California, not even close. But guess what? It still works and it still generates a lot of electricity. It can save you a lot of money.

So it’s, there’s a whole reason to do it. Um, and I think this, the, these vertical bifacial solar panels or even just bifacial solar panels. In general, they’re, they’re pretty popular, um, for certain use cases. It’s like I, I see them around a lot on the tops of buildings being used as solar canopies. Like you see them over car parks, you see them like a roof structure.

So it helps to shade the cars below it or shade the people underneath it. But it’s still letting some light trickle through and then it’s also getting that reflection that bounces back up from the bottom side. So it’s getting more energy production that way. So it’s like there’s, these are becoming more and more popular, but there is that cost issue.

They are a little more expensive. So cost per watt is probably where people are kind of being

held up right now. In the comments, there were some interesting, uh, considerations and also some speculation and some DIY thinking, which I appreciated. There was this from Antonio Foster, who said, one other benefit I see for a big farm, and one of the, uh, concepts that Matt talked about in his video, were farming.

Uh, laboratory settings effectively, where they’re incorporating solar panels in a farming setting where certain types of plants would benefit from some protection from the sun. And these vertical panels would work well between the rows. And so it’s kind of a win win where you’ve got energy production and farming production on the same terrain.

Antonio writes. Another benefit I see for this is when it is snowing, you wouldn’t have to clear the snow and even dust would not stick. Even dust would stick less on a vertical setup and you can much easily, you can much more easily clear grass and even technically farm it and sell for livestock. I think that that is an interesting take on this.

There was also this from FlyMyPG who wrote, This video neatly addresses a key dilemma. I have an asphalt shingle roof that has maybe another decade of life left to it, and I don’t want to put a solar array on it only to have to remove it when it’s time to replace the roof. I’m also replacing all of my privacy fencing, and I realize that I have two long runs that go almost perfectly north to south, making them ideal for rows of vertical solar panels, meaning that even if I need to purchase several extra panels to meet my total energy needs, the savings on labor and fence materials would more than pay for itself.

Even better, this makes my solar installation a DIY process, as there will be no need for any rooftop work. On top of that, I expect to have less maintenance due to less deposition of our insidious San Diego dust. That keeps blowing in. Win, win, win. I love that comment. That’s like, I love the kind of outside the box thinking and somebody on their own saying like, what if I just start using solar panels for privacy fencing?

Yeah. The idea of that is, is so interesting. There was also this from an anonymous user who jumped in to say, I discovered this years ago when I adjusted my panels to a 70 degree orientation for more power over the winter. When summer came along, I got lazy and didn’t readjust them to the 32 degrees for the summer with the rest of my sets.

I found my voltages were producing slightly less current, but voltages during peak heat was about 10 volts more. I was getting an extra 200 watts from that set as a result. I ended up leaving the panels where they were. They got less dust collection and when snow hit, it melted off much faster. People in the wild just having these laboratories like you of like I’ve got this thing and I accidentally discovered it was better.

And I love that. And it seems almost like, like we talked about, the panel manufacturers and the research that goes into, it seems to be looking for optimal scenarios, but maybe they are removing so many variables. Yep. That they end up making decisions and assumptions that in a lab clearly makes sense, but in the real world, maybe they’re missing.

A few key points. And

it’s fascinating to see that. I’m going to anger a lot of solar panel installers right now by what I’m about to say, because it’s going to sound like I’m putting them down. But there’s a lot of times solar panel installers are not experts in how the technology actually works.

They’re experts in installing it, but they’re not experts necessarily in understanding how it works and the best ways to utilize it. That’s not a fault of theirs. It’s just. Training. It’s like they’re just putting it on the roof. So there’s, I think kind of a, these standards, like what Tesla did to me, there’s kind of these standards of, Oh, this is the best way to do it because that’s the way we’ve been taught.

And that’s how the general thinking has been around solar panels. And what we’re seeing with research, like I highlighted in this video and some of the comments that we’ve heard. It’s not that at all. It’s like, there are so many variables at play with how solar panels work, how efficient they are, how heat impacts them or doesn’t impact them.

It’s really kind of a boutique thing that we’re still wrapping our heads around and how it functions. And so we need to keep an open mind about. How we can apply them in smarter, better ways in more locations. And then I love the idea of the fence. I mean, the fence to me is just like, maybe I want to do that.

It’s kind of awesome. We got to put a fence up. Do we do bifacial solar panels as a fence? Because that’d be kind of amazing.

Um, yeah. Cool. It’s really, and if you, to go back to something we’ve talked about in the past, the secondary market. So, if you’re putting it up as a fence, maybe do it as an experiment with, like, start off with some used panels and just see what happens.

100%. Yeah.

So, listeners, what do you think about all of this? Jump into the comments and let us know. And I think our conversation just kind of demonstrated how much the comments drive the content of this program, and it, of course, does trickle down to impact the mothership, which is Undecided with Matt Ferrell.

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