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here comes the sun
solar energy, and us
by cheryl l
10.21.08
general

Last September and October, I spent a month traveling across China - from the pollution-choked cities of the east, to the wide-open incredible landscapes of Tibet in the west. And you know one of the things that really caught my attention? That even some of the poorest people in China and Tibet - those who make $2,500 or less per year (if you converted local currency into U.S. dollars) had solar energy.

Yet here in America, we constantly get told how "expensive" or "difficult" it would be for us to move to solar or renewable energy.

Excuse me? Goat-herding nomads in Tibet have solar energy, and people living in mud-and-thatch huts in Africa use solar technology to make water potable, and it is too expensive a technology for us? Now, mind you, of course, people who are living in the more far-flung ends of the earth are not running a 3-bedroom house chock-full of technology and modern day conveniences like we are; so most of them can get by with a passive solar water heater on the roof, or a small solar panel that runs the few electric items they have. But the fact is that they have it, and it's common, and we're still not fully on board the bandwagon.

The fact is that technology breakthroughs have cut the cost of solar technology nearly 90% in the last twenty years. As fossil fuel costs rise and technology continues to improve, we will likely see solar costs be on par with fuel-driven energy costs within ten years. The U.S. has also scaled back on solar technology production, even as other countries are surging forward and increasing production capacity - as well as contributing research into the field.

So why, one must ask, does the idea of solar, or other forms of renewable energy, meet such resistance in the U.S.? Are we that reliant on petroleum that we simply refuse to accept any substitutes?

Let me cite another example a little closer to home. I like to visit California, and I love going to wine country. Route 128 meanders its way from Cloverdale (just off 101) to Albion on the Pacific coast; along the way, it passes through the Anderson Valley wine region. This is one of my favorite regions of the state, and it is loaded with smaller wineries putting out high-quality wines: Navarro Vineyards, Scharffenberger Cellars, Yorkville Cellars, Husch Vineyards, to name a few.

On my last visit to northern California in September 2006, one of the wineries I visited, Greenwood Ridge Winery, caught my eye with its slate of solar panels outside of its tasting room. I stopped in for a tasting - the winery consistently racks up awards - and asked the woman running the tasting about the panels. Between the solar panels on the winery roof, and those outside the tasting room, I was told that Greenwood Ridge produced enough solar energy not only to meet all of their own needs, but to contribute to the local energy grid.

Greenwood Ridge isn't the only winery who has "gone solar"; there are much larger, higher-profile wineries who are also going green with their energy needs, including: Grgich Hills Estate, Robert Mondavi, Shafer Vineyards, Clos du Bois, Rodney Strong, Fetzer, Far Niente and Domaine Carneros, among dozens of others. California wineries are fortunate; tax breaks under a 10-year California plan are helping to offset much of their costs -- but it is also allowing one of the state's most popular industries to become self-sufficient for energy needs, and the wineries' surplus energy goes into local grids -- a win-win situation all around.

Agriculture isn't the only place looking to improve their carbon footprint with solar energy. Google drew attention to the issue when they installed solar energy "trees" in their parking lots - a design choice that had the dual benefits of generating solar energy as well as providing shade to their parking areas. Additional solar panels were installed on the company's roof.

Chicago has made headlines as it progresses along a multi-year goal to become "the greenest city in America". Mayor Richard Daley, Jr., has encouraged not only solar energy but other renewable energy sources, as well as other means to make his city more eco-friendly, such as "green roofs" (rooftop garden systems) and getting people and businesses to cover roofs with silver or grey paint or shingles, which help reflect more passive heat than traditional black tar roofs, which retain a great deal of heat.

Solar energy doesn't have to be big, however; in fact, thanks to improvements in the technology, you can hold chargers in the palm of your hand. Eco-minded techies can buy small, pocket-sized chargers that can power up their iPod or cell phone or other personal entertainment devices in a couple hours. Are you on the go frequently? You might like one of Voltaic's solar-powered backpack/computer case that can be used to charge a wide variety of items, including laptops.

Like anything, solar and wind energy should aim to start small, whether it is getting people to wear/use clothing/bags with embedded solar panels, or to install a small grid of solar panels on their roof to help suppliment rising energy costs. We as a nation have changed our habits - good or bad - one step at a time, one person at a time, until things like recycling are commonplace. Why not renewable energy?

Part of the problem is that it is difficult as a consumer to look at the costs of purchasing solar technology vs. traditional energy sources. If you're looking to buy some solar panels and the cost is say, $10,000 for something that will last approximately 30 years (perhaps more), most people think, "Ok, I spend $X amount of money on energy bills per year, and thus it will take me # years for this to pay for itself." If it is anything more than five years, it tends to make us feel like the investment is not returned quickly enough.

Let's say you have an average one-bedroom condo; perhaps you pay about $50-70/month in energy costs with a spike in the summer due to air conditioning, etc., and therefore pay about $1K/year in energy costs - so a $10K investment would take ten years before it starts being "free". If you're like the average American, you figure it's likely you'll move before those ten years up and you haven't "gotten your money back" - which is the wrong way to think. The way to think about it is: "It will take me 10 years to pay this off, and then I'll have free energy for another 20 years" - a savings of $20,000. Plus -- you will have saved all that fuel over the years that it normally takes to run your home.

Short-sightedness is what kills change in this country. We have had solar technology for years; the fact that we have to fight so hard to get people willing to use it is baffling. Sunlight is free! In fact, so much energy can be captured from the sun, that the amount that hits the earth in roughly one hour is equivalent to all the energy used in the world in a year. In one year, the amount of solar energy received is more than twice as much energy as all fuel sources will ever produce.

We know, for example, that the rising cost of traditional fuel is driving up costs in other parts of our lives: food, coffee, plastics, you name it. People wax poetic about the "cheap" fuel days (you know - when gas was still under $2/gallon) and the hope remains that one day fuel costs will get that low again.

What fuel is cheaper than sunlight, which is FREE?

Why are we so happy to waste something that is free and endlessly renewable? What holds us back from jumping whole-heartedly onto the solar bandwagon, and freeing ourselves of the yokel of oil/gas dependence?

I think the silliest arguement I hear is about aesthetics. Think about it, though: which is more attractive: a solar array or a wind mill farm -- or a smoke-belching, pollution-producing oil/gas plant, or a potential biohazard nuclear power plant? I can hear the cries of "NIMBY" right now, no matter which people bring up! Arguments against solar/wind sources have ranged from everything from aesthetics ("it'll ruin the look of the bay/the valley/etc") to concern over migratory animals.

We cannot wait until the fuel runs out and then scramble to fix the issue; we cannot continue our dependency on petroleum that permeates our entire lives. We need to find - and use - alternative methods to oil so that we can stretch our our remaining resources for as long as possible for where they are really needed.

We need to take so many more small steps now, and dedicate resources to building a better energy future - for ourselves, and for those who follow.

* * *

For more information :

Read about the recently passed legislature which extends solar tax credits on the American Solar Energy Society webpage.


ABOUT CHERYL L

Photographer. Writer. World traveler. Gamer. Avid reader. Computer enthusiast. Connecticut yankee-turned-Chicagoan. Hockey fan. Drives American. Eats organically and locally. Supports no-kill animal shelters and children's charities. Likes intelligent debate.

more about cheryl l

IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...

let's talk about change
and i mean real change, not just mouthing the words
by cheryl l
topic: general
published: 9.28.08





COMMENTS

juli mccarthy
10.22.08 @ 12:29p

I keep hearing - from Americans - that America is such a world leader. We're the greatest, the world looks to us, and so on. So why are we so bass-ackwards about so much? Hell, we're all excited about the fact that we might have a black (!) President and the rest of the world is going, "Yeah...and? What, you're just NOW getting to that?"

I've heard those who get off on conspiracy theories say that Big Oil has the government in its pocket and they don't want us to know about alternate sources, they want to keep us in the dark, they are squashing research and development so they can maintain their monopoly, etc. Conspiracy theories make me tired, but the more I see other countries adapt the things that we are told won't work, the more credence I end up giving them.



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