Harnessing the ancient, sustainable energy of the sun is an environmental necessity
By Debra Bokur
“Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman. Too often, we take the presence of the sun for granted. We happily doze beneath it on summer afternoons, lament its absence in winter, and always expect it to soar into the sky and signal the beginning of each day. Ancient cultures worshiped this heavenly body, weaving their most important myths and legends around its beams in recognition of its power and role in sustaining life.
Our consumer-driven society has instead placed its faith in oil, a choice that’s taking a dire toll on the environment—and one that has proven to be a continuing cause for war and unrest throughout the world. As members of a global community, we’re faced with choices that will have a long-term impact on the entire planet. Choosing sustainable, non-polluting energy sources is a step in the right direction.
The U.S. was utilizing solar power as far back as 1958, when Vanguard I, our first satellite, was sent into space powered by solar cells that converted sunlight into electricity. In the years following its launch, this technology became routine in both military and civilian satellites. Many countries, including Europe, Australia, Africa, and China have gone on to develop and successfully apply these renewable energy technologies to residential housing and consumer products.
“Other countries don’t have the established electricity infrastructure we do, so they are less averse to adopting new technologies, including renewables, to supply the energy they need,” explains John Thornton, Principal Engineer, National Center for Photovoltaics at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Our use of renewable energy lags far behind. Simply bringing renewables into our current system and combining them with traditional energy sources here would not only give the U.S. more options, but increase our ability to withstand severe power outages.”
Thornton is alluding to the recent massive power outages experienced in areas of the U.S. during the past couple of years, most infamously in New York and California. Recurring blackouts and brownouts in other cities are likely to become a regular occurrence.
“The entire electrical infrastructure in the U.S. is very fragile and can be easily disrupted,” says Thornton. “It’s subject to cascading shutouts and [can] cause a huge amount of economic damage—right down to the cost to municipalities of providing extra police and fire protection during these events. And the cost of war is never factored in—you hear that renewable energy is too expensive an option, but it’s certainly the least cost to the planet.”
Energy from the sun supplies heat and light, and can be used to generate electricity. Heat from the sun also commands the winds, which powers wind turbines. Water evaporation from the sun creates rain, and the sun’s heat melts snowfall, which in turn flows into rivers. This force of this moving water can then be harnessed in the form of hydroelectric power.
According to Thornton, a growing number of opportunities are available to the public to incorporate solar power into their homes, recreational choices, and future plans.
“Serious options are available to the consumer. For instance, using passive solar [via south-facing windows] is really an energy efficiency device. For people making renovations or additions to their homes, or building homes, it’s possible to cut energy consumption in half—installing a system that operates in conjunction with the existing energy grid provides protection in case of a power outage, blackout, or brownout.”
Some of the available options include home photovoltaic (PV) systems, passive solar heating, solar lighting, and solar water and pool heating. Solar water heating systems consist of a solar collector that absorbs heat, and a storage reservoir or tank. Solar lighting and passive solar heat take advantage of large, heavy-paned, south-facing windows, as well as shading to prevent overheating in hot climates.
If replacing the windows in your home isn’t an option and you don’t have any major renovations planned, solar window film applied to the glass of existing windows—most often window interiors—can still help prevent heat loss during winter months and help reduce energy costs. This option, however, is not as effective as specially designed passive solar windows. Film choices include low-emissivity (low-e) and tinted film, varieties of which are made of thin, high-tech laminate of ceramic or metal. To ensure a snug, flat fit that’s free from bubbling and wrinkles, film should be installed by an experienced technician.
Simply reducing the consumption of electricity is another place to start. Thornton says that parasitic power—such as leaving your computer and monitors on overnight or when not in use—can amount to as much as five power plants’ worth of energy being wasted daily in this country alone.
There are plenty of solar powered gadgets on the market right now. Gaiam’s Real Goods catalog (solar.realgoods.com) has a wide selection of solar-powered consumer goods, equipment, and home solar power systems available. There are even Power Plant notebook batteries that charge via solar panels that can be used to power laptop computers. Also perfect for recharging laptops are 10-Watt PVs that come pre-wired to fit into the cigarette lighter of your car. Portable power systems (comprised of generators and solar gel batteries) can be purchased for emergency use during power outages and for use when camping. Many are even strong enough to power boats, radios and televisions. Another great option for camping are solar showers that heat up to five gallons of water in three hours, with enough water to provide showers for four people. For camping, travel, or home use, you can find oscillating fans, hand-held spotlights and lamps that plug into portable, 8-step voltage power sources (similar to a large battery). For outdoor cooking, sun ovens make fabulous camp cookstoves. They come with built-in thermometers, and heat up to temperatures ranging from 350 to 400 degrees. On the home gardening front, solar tillers for gardening operate in near silence for up to thirty minutes at a time, and can be left in the sun to recharge. Sun-powered mulch mowers with adjustable cutting heights and attached leaf-collecting bags are also quiet, and keep lawns neat without polluting the environment. Solar yard and orb lights provide efficient night lighting along pathways, stairs, and driveways.
Words to Warm You
Thankfully, there are many people hard at work to bring clean, renewable energy into our daily lives. The U.S. Department of Energy has instituted the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, with a goal of installing a million solar rooftops across the nation by the year 2010. Across the country, solar panels are being used to power street signs, city lighting, and construction signs.
“Investing in renewable energy is like throwing a stone in the water,” says Thornton. “The benefits spread out over the whole society. It doesn’t affect just one person, it affects us all, on a variety of levels. From a terrorism perspective, our dependency on oil and fossil fuel-generated energy makes us very vulnerable. As consumers, we don’t mind buying a new car every year when the old one is perfectly good, but we tend to see the cost of investing in solar energy systems as being expensive and never really paying off. It’s really a matter of choice.”
Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (916) 442-7785, www.ceert.org
The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse (800) 363-3732, www.eere.energy.gov
Energy Foundation (415) 561-6700, www.ef.org/home.cfm
Environmental Law and Policy Center (312) 673-6500, www.elpc.org
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (303) 275-3000, www.nrel.gov
Safe Energy Communication Council (202) 483-8491, www.safeenergy.org