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Leaning Towards Solar

By DesiredUsername in Op-Ed
Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:51:21 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

A previous article on the rising expense of natural gas, plus the ongoing saga of California, prompted a recent foray of mine into learning about solar energy. When I dove in I was excited. After a few days I was disappointed. Now I'm cautiously optimistic.


First, a few facts:

  • You can get 148,000 BTUs for about $1.40 of fuel oil or 1057 BTUs/penny
  • You can get 100,000 BTUs for about $1.10 of natural gas or 909 BTUs/penny
  • You can get 3413 BTUs for about $0.14 (in NH) of electricity or 243 BTUs/penny
  • You can get 3413 BTUs for about $0.07 (in CA) of electricity or 487 BTUs/penny

That's right, in NH electricity is 4.3 times as expensive as oil. This is precisely why it makes no sense at all to use electric heat, especially in the Northeast. (btw, a BTU is just a measurement of energy--I chose that one because I was able to find conversion factors for all the relevant fuels)

The (relatively) high cost of electricity made me wonder if I could lower my energy payments (I haven't yet moved into the house so I don't know what they'll be, but "a penny saved..."). My first thought was to convert the big-load appliances (washer/dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher) to natural gas. The problem is, this is a lot of work (running pipes through the house) AND locks you in to natural gas.

My next thought was solar electricity.

Initially I was enthusiastic. I figured solar was like Linux--hard to get into, but cheaper and all-round better once you understand what you are doing. Then I found a few articles that mentioned that solar wasn't economical for people currently on the power grid. And these were the PRO-solar ones! One article even said that solar power was about $.65/KwH. Ouch!

That article was about 5-8 years old, though. Big strides have been made since then, so I setup a somewhat simplistic spreadsheet to figure out the current reality. The lifetime of a solar system is roughly 20-25 years (I base this on the fact that most dealers offer warranties of that length). Let's use 20 years as a constant. There are two other variables:

C = Cost/watt of the original system (for instance, a $1000 system that generates 100 watts would have a C of $10)

H = Average hours of usable sunlight per day in your area (for New Hampshire this number is around 4)

To figure out your cost/kwh over the lifetime use the following calculation:

C / (((H * 365)/1000) * 20)

In English: The number of KwH generated per year (normalizing to a 1 watt system) times 20 years of lifetime, divided into the cost/watt of the system.

Online shopping seems to indicate that the lower bound of C is about $5 right now (utilizing economies of scale). With 4 hours of sun day in NH, that makes my calculation:

5 / (((4 * 365)/1000) * 20) = $0.17/KwH

$.17/KwH compared to the $.14/KwH I'm paying now. For CA, where H = 5 or 6, the cost is $.13/KwH-$.11/KwH. Now add in a few other factors:

  • Some states have incentives for using renewable energy: My town doesn't include a solar system in a property appraisal. That's a big plus in a huge property tax state like NH.
  • With batteries attached, there's no need to worry about "rolling blackouts"
  • I'm helping the environment (a solar panel only costs about 1-2 KwH to make and produces much much more than that)
  • Oil depletion and market deregulation will probably force energy prices higher--or at least introduce uncomfortable fluctuations
  • As more people buy solar, the price goes down
Better yet, solar technology is only getting more efficient and cheaper and systems built today will likely last longer than the 20 years of the first generation's technology. Also, it's extremely easy to modularize--buy 100 watts this year, 100 more next year, etc.

Conclusion: As soon as I have money, I'm investing in solar.

(PS, I was going to include some information on reducing usage, but this is long enough already)

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Leaning Towards Solar | 34 comments (30 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Interesting... (3.66 / 3) (#1)
by regeya on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:00:55 PM EST

one thing I had looked into is methane production. No, not meth production! :o) The only problem is that you wouldn't want to get too into this unless you live in the country, lest you have neighbors complaining that the neighborhood "smells like shit."

[ yokelpunk | kuro5hin diary ]

12 years ago (4.33 / 3) (#3)
by Anonymous 242 on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:02:30 PM EST

My father had a solar water heating unit put up on the roof of his house about 12 years ago. At that time, he only paid 10% of the cost. The balance was picked up through assorted tax rebates, incentives from state and federal governments, etc. I've no clue how much (if any) money he saved on running the water heater but the unit only worked for about 3 years. Anyone considering solar should look into how much of the purchase price they can get rebated through different programs.

I suspect that a properly maintained unit would last much longer. Not to mention that the technology has improved a fair bit since the nineteen eighties.



That's very interesting (3.00 / 1) (#6)
by DesiredUsername on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:10:10 PM EST

Incentives vary a LOT by state. I don't have the URL, but search on google for something like "solar power incentives" and eventually you'll find a site that lists what is available by state. On a slightly different topic, I got some information on financing, but it's all mortgage related--I just closed on my mortgage a week ago, I'm not going through that again any time soon.

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
solar (electricity, power) (4.00 / 4) (#4)
by streetlawyer on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:04:09 PM EST

If you've got the heat of the sun, and you want to heat something, then turning the energy of the sun into electricity, storing it in batteries and then using an electric heater seems a pretty odd way of going about it. Direct solar water heating is, IIRC, much more efficient; the only net cost is a bit of electricity for the pump.

--
Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
Insulation... (3.00 / 1) (#22)
by Robby on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 03:34:51 PM EST

Your point that the conversion process is silly and somewhat 'crap' is possibly true.

But the problem with direct sunlight is that by allowing the sun to heat is that you're also allowing the water to cool (simultaneously) when it's exposed. Simply because, by exposure, you're out in the open air too. It's a double edged sword. After all, if you were right, Everyone would have done this by now.

Also, don't forget that you can direct several square meters of surface power to a very small amount of water by using solar cells, thus 'concentrating' the power. You can't do this by direct exposure.

Anyway, keep trying to cheat the the energy system!

[ Parent ]

Re: Insulation (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by sigwinch on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 05:47:44 PM EST

Simply because, by exposure, you're out in the open air too.

I read about systems that use black water pipes in a transparent vacuum container to minimize heat loss. They can get water *very* hot.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Other alternatives to the utility co (4.50 / 4) (#8)
by tetrad on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:19:37 PM EST

If you're looking to make a capital investment in your home to save on long-term utility costs, you might investigate geothermal heat pumps. The US DOE has a pretty good summary here, and I expect that for a house in NH the return on investment would exceed that of solar panels.

tetrad

n-gas! (3.50 / 2) (#10)
by rebelcool on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:48:00 PM EST

lord how i wished more apartments around here used natural gas for the appliances..would save me a load of money on my electric bill.

Just wait for house sized fuel cells to come around

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

though efficient... (3.00 / 1) (#14)
by cetan on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:04:55 PM EST

Though natural gas is much nicer than electricity, prices for it have gone through the roof. I'm paying more than 60% higher rates now than a year ago.

===== cetan www.cetan.com =====
[ Parent ]
Things to consider... (5.00 / 4) (#11)
by ucblockhead on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:50:37 PM EST

  • Solar is not very dependable. Sometimes you get a lot of power. Sometimes you get little. This means that a large part of the expense is a bunch of batteries to store the excess. Many states allow you to sell power back if you have a surplus, so if you stay on the grid, you can dispense with the batteries.
  • In the hot southern states, like California, you get the most solar output when energy demand is the highest, in the summer.
  • Solar panels take a lot of space. Worse yet, you've got to make sure that space gets a lot of sun.
  • Check out these guys for lots of concrete info. Better yet, if you are near Novato, California, go check them out. They have lots of working examples and such.
  • One big hidden expense with solar is that the panels wear out. Their average life is about ten years, if I recall correctly.

-----------------------
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
Panel life expenctancy and size (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by DesiredUsername on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:10:18 PM EST

"One big hidden expense with solar is that the panels wear out. Their average life is about ten years, if I recall correctly."

Not anymore. Many (most?) manufacturers offer a 20 year warranty and some (like Siemens, I think) offers a 25 year warranty. And that's a FULL warranty, meaning they will replace the panel if it drops below it's minimum rated wattage.

"Solar panels take a lot of space."

Less and less all the time. I don't have any hard numbers, but I've seen illustrations of fully-solar, off-the-grid homes where the panels take up just one side of the roof. Since that space is unused as is, that's not too bad.

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
Responses to consider... (none / 0) (#30)
by kcarnold on Sat Feb 03, 2001 at 12:03:25 AM EST

> Solar is not very dependable. Sometimes you get a lot of power. Sometimes you get little. This means that a large part of the expense is a bunch of batteries to store the excess. Many states allow you to sell power back if you have a surplus, so if you stay on the grid, you can dispense with the batteries.

The variability is exactly why most solar cells have a battery behind them. And in terms of the number of energy conversions required, if you're 12/24VDC in-house, it's more efficient to avoid the DC->AC->DC conversion, even if you need a few batteries to do it. Besides, what do you do in a thunderstorm when a tree falls on the power line? A home well-equipped with batteries could stay at near-full capabilities, while the grid-only guy down the road can't even pump water from his well. (yes well pumps draw lots of energy, but for basic necessities like water you can spare it.)

> In the hot southern states, like California, you get the most solar output when energy demand is the highest, in the summer.

Only solar? How about wind? Hydro? They're all seasonal.

> Solar panels take a lot of space. Worse yet, you've got to make sure that space gets a lot of sun.

Ever heard of your roof? A decently-cleared lot will result in lots of sun shining on the roof, doing nothing useful unless you stick a solar cell or, like in my old house, a solar hot water heater there(which actually worked quite well; this was in NC on a wooded but somewhat-open lot). How about the many acres of roof in most big cities? Seems like you could get a lot of power from putting solar cells where you otherwise "waste" a bunch of sun.

> One big hidden expense with solar is that the panels wear out. Their average life is about ten years, if I recall correctly.

Maybe we could learn a few things from plants about this and other aspects of solar energy. Plants in photosynthesis manage to get about twice the efficiency as our crude clones, and do it thinner and more asthetically-appealing. Some plants live for hundreds of years. They repair damage automatically. They are manufactured at room temperature with simple materials. Maybe we could find some inspiration from studying them?

[ Parent ]

Solar life (4.50 / 6) (#12)
by Corwin on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 12:55:01 PM EST

Sorry, but I have to do this.

The lifetime of a solar system is roughly 20-25 years

Good heavans! Is NASA going to do anything about this? We're doomed!

---
I'm in search of myself. Have you seen me anywhere?
I think this is when you say... (3.00 / 1) (#15)
by Captain_Tenille on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:07:51 PM EST

"Smoke 'em if you've got 'em"

At least 20-25 years from now. :-)
----
/* You are not expected to understand this. */

Man Vs. Nature: The Road to Victory!
[ Parent ]

viability of solar panels as an energy source (4.00 / 3) (#13)
by Delirium on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:02:48 PM EST

One of the major problems with solar energy as a viable energy source is the enourmous amounts of energy it takes to manufacture the solar panels. At least when I read data on it a few years ago, it would take you around ten years of running the solar panels before they would even produce as much energy as it took to make them. Obviously being able to produce "clean energy" doesn't do you any good if it took you even more unclean energy to manufacture the parts - you'd be better off just using the unclean energy directly.

Not anymore, if ever (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by DesiredUsername on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:17:50 PM EST

I wondered the same thing, but it turns out not to be true. Again, I don't have a link for this, but a little searching will find the answer. Payback time depends on the amount of sunlight in the area (obviously) but it ranges from 1 to 3 years. However, even 10 years wouldn't be all that bad given that panels apparently last upwards of 20 years. Remember, they're solid state--no moving parts.

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
Energy over lifetime of photovoltaic cell (5.00 / 1) (#24)
by sigwinch on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 03:55:57 PM EST

One of the major problems with solar energy as a viable energy source is the enourmous amounts of energy it takes to manufacture the solar panels. At least when I read data on it a few years ago, it would take you around ten years of running the solar panels before they would even produce as much energy as it took to make them.

Refining and manufacturing silicon does require lots of energy, seeing as how most of the manufacturing process involves things glowing red hot in a furnace. But is it really that much?

The power density of sunlight is about 1 kilowatt/square meter. Assuming the photovoltaic cell efficiency is 20%, that's 200 watts/square meter. Every minute, the PV cell produces 12000 joules/square meter of energy. Assuming four hours/day of sunlight, that's 2.9 MJ/day. Over a 10 year lifetime, that's 10.5 GJ of energy produced, the equivalent of 77 gallons (290 liters) of gasoline. That is a considerable amount of energy, enough to drive an efficient car 6000 miles.

Put another way, it's enough energy to keep a tabletop 10 kW furnace running continuously for 12 days! I.e., a few ounces of solar cell can produce enough energy to keep several pounds of silicon glowing white hot for two weeks. That seems like far more energy than manufacturing would need, but I don't really know for sure.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

How is 'H' calculated? (4.00 / 2) (#17)
by Speare on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:14:46 PM EST

H = Average hours of usable sunlight per day in your area (for New Hampshire this number is around 4)

This must be some sort of normalized value; does it integrate the negligible dawn and dusk through the intense noonday? Does it integrate the many months of crappy skies in the winter and spring?

In short, the number 4 sounds HIGH to me, if you have to factor in how poorly a solar cell works with incident and intermittent light.

The new space station foils are about HALF an ACRE of surface area, expensive, designed for efficiency, and has no atmospheric and little night-time reductions in its available input. (It also doesn't have bird-poop or oxidization to worry about.) The power produced is only able to drive the equivalent of a half dozen typical suburban houses. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn't.

Solar is a good augmentation, as is wind. It's not a full replacement, and it's just another thing that can break down, adding hidden costs to home ownership.


[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]
H calc (4.00 / 1) (#19)
by DesiredUsername on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 01:31:19 PM EST

I don't know how H is calculated. In fact, I don't think it IS calculated, I think it's the result of data gathering over a long (30 year) period of time. Here's a search you can do to verify my numbers.

"Solar is a good augmentation, as is wind. It's not a full replacement, and it's just another thing that can break down, adding hidden costs to home ownership."

But it already IS a full replacement for thousands of people. This is especially true as the "typical suburban house" could be 2 to 3 times more efficient than it is. If you "augment" 1/3-1/2 of your electricity with solar, you could have it be a full-replacement by reducing your waste. As for breaking down: Solar is solid state, no moving parts, nothing to wear out. At worst you might need to replace your batteries from time to time, assuming you use batteries.

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
You forgot a couple of things (4.50 / 2) (#20)
by anewc2 on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 02:13:34 PM EST

Maintenance costs. Suppose your $1000 system will need $25 per year in maintenance costs and insurance. (I'm just pulling this number out of a hat, but it hardly seems excessive.) Over the twenty-year life, this adds up to $500, half your original cost, or 8.5 cents per kwh. Your 17 cents becomes more than 25.

The time value of money. The 17 cents is payable up front, but the kilowatt-hours are spread out over 20 years. If you could borrow the $1000 at say 8.5% or so, your total payments over twenty years would be about $2000, but they would come as you use the power, the way your utility bills do. So that's 34 cents, plus maintenance, or about 42 cents vs. the 14 you are paying now.

The world's biggest fool can say the sun is shining, but that doesn't make it dark out. -- Robert Pirsig
Other costs (none / 0) (#21)
by DesiredUsername on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 02:26:31 PM EST

Yeah, I don't know about maintenance. The panels themselves need zero maintenance--they are solid state. If they the output decreases, cash in your warranty.

I think the inverters/interties have similar warranties so you'd be OK there. If you had other equipment (batteries or whatever) you might incur some cost there, but I bet that $25/year is already overstating it.

As for the time value of money: it's a good point. However, I'm no economist, but it seems like this would even out at worst. The cost of electricity is likely to increase during those 20 years, as well.

Play 囲碁
[ Parent ]
Cost != Value (none / 0) (#28)
by phuzzie on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 08:45:11 PM EST

Just my couple copper, but monetary cost is just one part of the equation. Even if solar/wind/geothermal/whatever renewable energy source costs you more than grid power would, you're reducing the strain on the environment, which in the long is worth a lot more than the couple cents per kWh you might save right now. Not to mention that eventually all your nice carbon based fuels we rape the earth to procure will run out and we'll have to switch anyways.

One more benefit to outfitting one's residence with renewable energy is self-dependence. The Man can't shut off your power if he's not providing it. Also, you're not affected by his decisions, like instituting rolling blackouts here in CA. Thanks for listening.

phuzzie

[ Parent ]
Did you index for inflation? (4.66 / 3) (#23)
by Robby on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 03:45:27 PM EST

When you calculated that your price for power is 17cents pwer kWh as opposed to 14cents, did you index for simply inflationary rises in cost?

Assuming that natural gas power continues to cost the same amount compared to your income, if inflation was:

  • 1 percent, then the prices would be 'equal' after 20 years.
  • 2 percent, then the prices would be 'equal' after 10 years.
  • 3 percent, then the price would be 'equal' after 6.5 years.
The point is that you should consider inflation in your pricing: if you say to yourself that, given a puny inflation rate of 2%, after 10 years you'd be better off than the rest of us, it makes the proposition even more attractive. I don't know what inflation rates have been like in the states, but i'm assuming that even the states have an inflation which is greater than 1 percent..

Would have to include opportunity cost of money (3.75 / 4) (#25)
by meeth on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 04:08:15 PM EST

If you include inflation in the cost of natural gas power, then you should include the (implicit) cost of having to sink a large investment into solar power immediately. I.E., if solar power cells cost $1000 than setting up one's home for natural gas, that's $1000 one could have invested in stocks, bonds, or whatever (even "whatever" typically has a better rate of return than inflation). Alternatively, that's a $1000 loan one has taken one. Otherwise, talking about inflation isn't very meaningful.

[ Parent ]
A Good Site (4.50 / 2) (#26)
by bornholtz on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 05:28:35 PM EST

There is a ton of information available at www.homepower.com. They have a lot of articles on solar and wind power.

Solar is -almost- viable, but be careful. (5.00 / 1) (#29)
by Shayde on Fri Feb 02, 2001 at 09:18:18 PM EST

From the raw numbers, you can't really 'get off better' with a pure PV (photovoltaic). Enough to run a medium sized house will run 20 to 30k dollars. In most cases, this should be augmented by an alternative system, such as a wind generator, or hydroelectric. If it's dark for a few days, your batteries will run out, guaranteed.

There are other hidden costs... PV systems have a lifetime of between 10 and 15 years, at which point the entire panel basically needs to be replaced. Batteries have a similar lifetime, and also need to be replaced.

It's common to run an 'off the grid' house not at 110volts, also, since that's a very inefficient way to do things (a light really only needs 12v. Most PV systems are actually 24v). This means replacing all your lights, all your appliances, and all the power supplies to your computers with a 'low voltage' system.

From an independence / 'green' perspective, yes, it's a wonderful thing. From a purely financial standpoint, it's not quite there yet.

Home Power Magazine (www.homepower.com) is a -must- if you're planning on doing something like this. The knowledge in even one issue is worth the subscription.

ObAnecdotalStory - I recently went to a new cohousing development, and noticed a pair of PV panels on the roof of one of hte houses. A little asking, and apparentlyh it was sponsored by EnergyStar - they gave the panels to the owners of the house in exchange for being able to show the house off to people just after it's built. Pretty good deal. I asked how it worked, and the owners said the panels are hooked in using a smart 't' arrangement against the grid feed. If the panels are providing as much power as the house needs, the system pulls from the panels. As the panels 'dim' or the load goes up, it starts pulling from the grid. Here's where it starts getting interesting. If the panels are generating more energy than the house needs, the power is fed -back out- to the grid. On this day, I saw the power meter on the house actually running -backwards- (since it was sunny, and no one was in the house). _THAT_s pretty neat. :)


----------------------------------------------- Geekherder, Code Slinger, and Systems Wrangler

Black Silicon (none / 0) (#31)
by chinoodle on Sun Feb 04, 2001 at 08:16:28 AM EST

If you're interested in a potential future improvement for solar power, you may want to read up on Black Silicon. Aside from being a heart-warming tale of 'accidental' discovery, it could well offer considerably improved effeciency for solar cells, amongst other possible applications. You can read a news article outlining things from the Harvard University Gazette, or read the technical papers and more indepth discussion on the Mazur Group site.

Henry Todd CompSci Dept. - Royal Holloway
Save $ by reducing usage first, then add solar. (none / 0) (#32)
by raygundan on Mon Feb 05, 2001 at 08:57:47 AM EST

I have been looking into the same thing, and have decided that I will start by reducing the amount of energy I am using currently before I build a solar system. Not only is this a cheaper way to start, but it reduces the size of the solar array and batteries you will need as well.

There are several easy things to do:

1. Replace your lights with compact fluorescent bulbs. They are available in nearly every size and type of bulb you can imagine, use less than 1/4 the power of a normal bulb, last for 5-12 years (depending on brand), and produce nice, warm light instead of the nasty blueish glare you would expect from fluorescents. This alone shaved 12% off my electric bill.

2. Replace your refrigerator, washer, and dryer with much higher efficiency models. Staber makes a good high-efficiency washer (http://www.globalresourceoptions.com/lib/globalresourceoptions/StaberFeature.html). SunFrost (www.sunfrost.com) makes refrigerators that uses about 1/5 the power of a normal fridge.

3. Add insulation, upgrade your furnace/AC/heat pump to a more efficient model.

4. Turn stuff off when you're not using it. Or build little gizmos to turn stuff off for you-- that's more fun anyway!

After you've cut down how much power you use, start figuring out what sort of solar array you need. I would suggest building a small, grid-connected system with no batteries (the common types are a giant pain to maintain) to produce a small percentage of your power. This will give you a better idea of how much power you can produce with how many panels in your area at different times of the year, and it will bring you that much closer to full solar. Add panels to this system until it produces enough, and batteries if you want them (either to disconnect from the grid fully or a smaller set to use as a giant UPS).

When I finally get the money together to do this, I think that I will remain connected to the grid. Power companies will buy excess power from you, which will more than cover the minimum "connection fee" you must pay to be on the grid, even if your net power usage is 0. Additionally, that excess power you sell to the grid helps reduce the amount of "dirty" power other people are using, too, where with a battery you have to throw away power that you are producing that is greater than your load when the batteries are charged. Not to mention the ugly maintenance of batteries!

I highly recommend a little grid-connected system for everybody, just to play with.

solar energy != solar panels (none / 0) (#33)
by mikpos on Mon Feb 05, 2001 at 10:01:46 AM EST

light -> electricity -> heat seems like a terrible waste, especially since the first conversion (solar panels) is so inefficient. light -> heat a much better idea.

I'd recommend going to the library and looking up some of the books from the 60s and 70s written by permaculture hippies for using solar energy (minus the electricity part) to heat and cool your house. Most or written on the premise that you're building a new house, or making radical changes (thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars worth, most likely) to your house, but you might be able to get some ideas.

Fuel Cells (none / 0) (#34)
by marqpdx on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 06:58:30 PM EST

I was reading about fuel cells, how they can separate Hydrogen from water or any hydrocarbon, without combustion, achieving a much higher efficiency than current burning technologies. I think solar has a place, but when you combine grid-connected solar plus a natural gas or water fueled fuel cell, you start to see how this century's energy needs can be met in a more sustainable, less polluting, more cost-effective manner. And, we won't have to return to nuclear power!

Leaning Towards Solar | 34 comments (30 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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