Note: The information contained in this periodical weblog may be outdated. This was my personal weblog published before January 1, 2015. Since then I have been the co-owner and Principal Solar Designer at Florida Solar Design Group.

Snake Oil in Renewable Energy Sales

A plumber recently came out to my home to fix a drain problem, and when I told him I was in the solar business he responded by saying that he “does not believe in solar.” He went on to say that he is developing a perpetual motion machine that works. His lawyer must be Johnnie Cochran, because he just beat the laws of physics!

He didn’t successfully fix my plumbing issue, either. No surprise…

The world is full of snake oil salesmen that claim to have the answers to all of our energy woes. There is the guy that is doubling his fuel mileage by injecting hydrogen made from water into his car engine. Then there is the company that sells a wind generator the size of a ceiling fan that produces enough energy for your house with less than 5 mph wind speed. Usually these kind of devices look like a PVC pipe bomb made in someone’s garage, and it’s easy to peg as junk. Sometimes it’s peddled at green fairs, and sometimes it’s right there in your mailbox on a glossy mailer. Don’t fall for it!

It came to my attention that there is a “renewable energy” company in Southwest Florida trying to sell a device that magically makes your home use less energy. They don’t actually call it magic – they try to pass it off as scientific fact. It looks like a well made device outwardly. They have testimonials on their website. They have a great explanation of how it works that would surely convince any non-engineer consumer.

They are selling what is called a Power Factor Correction device. If you want to get into the math or get the technical details on why it is a hoax, go ahead and Google it. I’ll just put it into simple terms: it does not work!

Look Closely: It says Watthour Meter. Utility meters measure real power (watts), not apparent power (volt-amps).

Ok, I guess I have to back that up with something… Your utility meter measures the real power consumed by your home (in kilowatts). There is something called apparent power, (measured in volt-amps). Apparent power is greater than real power in a typical home. The ratio is called the power factor.

The seller of this device would have you believe that your utility meter measures the apparent power, so you need a “power factor correction device” to save big money. Truthfully, the utility does need to produce and deliver the apparent power to your home, but you are only charged for the real power!

Want another opinion? Here is a well written Wikipedia entry.

Why is the utility company willing to give you this “free” energy? Well, the power factor in homes is relatively high – above 0.90 or 90%. It is also relatively uniform amongst residential customers, so it is simply built into the residential rate. Effectively you are paying for apparent power, but you don’t have a choice – your usage is measured in real power consumed, and no device attached to your main breaker panel is going to change that.

This Power Factor Correction Device Does Not Work
Example of a Power Factor Correction Device That Does Not Work

Power factor is an issue in industrial settings where the utility company charges (penalizes) users for having a low power factor. Large motors are the main contributors to low power factors because some of the power used simply maintains the electromagnetic field in the motor, and it produces no real work. Some industrial customers may benefit from power factor correction. Small motors like your pool pump and refrigerator compressor also have power factors less than 1.0, but the impact to the utility company is miniscule.

Southwest Florida does have some reputable and responsible solar dealers. I think that some of the snake oil salespeople out there truly believe in what they are saying. They just don’t have the technical understanding of what they are selling, or just look the other way when their product claims are refuted. The best way to experience renewable energy is to use the tried and true products that are available. There is no magic in solar water/pool heating. Black panels make water hot. Everyone knows that. Solar electric modules produce electricity. You can measure it. The results are real. Solar tubular skylights bring light into dark spaces. There is no room for argument.

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