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Solar Power for the People! February 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has ranted about this before, but having just received an e-mail from the Mother Earth News with the subject line “Is solar power right for you?” has inspired me to rant about it again. Mind you, our friend Ben loves Mother. I happen to know the editor-in-chief and many of the contributors, so I know that their passion for responsible, earth-friendly living is genuine and their integrity is impeccable. They’re the real deal. But solar energy—our greatest hope for an endlessly renewable free source of heat, light, and power—is not the real deal. And it won’t be until it’s made easy and affordable.

Look at it this way: You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to use electricity. Somebody else sets up your system, and all you have to do is plug stuff in, flip a switch, and change the occasional lightbulb. No pain, big gain, right? Beyond changing lightbulbs and occasionally flipping a switch on the circuit breaker or replacing a burnt-out power strip, there’s not much maintenance required, at least on the part of the homeowner.

Not so in the case of solar power. You almost have to be a solar engineer to maintain your system, with its battery banks, AC-to-DC converters, positioning of solar panels, and the like. Then there’s the issue of buying special (and inevitably more expensive) DC appliances, not to mention the initial cost of buying, installing and maintaining the system itself.

Admittedly, solar has come quite a long way, especially in terms of small solar-powered appliances and systems that are connected to the grid, using electricity from the powerlines when solar energy isn’t available and selling energy back to the power company when solar energy is abundant. This sort of setup precludes the need for massive battery banks and the like, but it still uses electricity. And it’s still too expensive for the average homeowner.

In my youth, our friend Ben believed that electricity was water-powered and was an endlessly renewable resource: All those hydroelectric dams just kept pumping out the power, didn’t they? Well, guess not. As our population and resource consumption grows, we divert more and more water to our homes and yards, draining the water tables and the very watercourses that generate that electricity.* Meanwhile, our need for electricity just keeps on growing and growing as we use more and more energy-hogging appliances and build ever-bigger homes. And apparently, we’re meeting that ever-expanding need by generating electricity from non-renewable resources like coal and oil. Yikes!!!

Wind power is certainly an option, but only where it’s windy. But the sun shines down on us all. What a simple and perfect solution to our energy needs! If only, if only, somebody could make it cheap and user-friendly.

I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s still the one that works best for me: Somebody should do for solar energy what they did for computers. Back in the distant day, computers were monstrous structures called mainframes that occupied entire rooms and took mathematicians to operate. Now anybody can plug in their affordable, easy-to-use laptop (or you name it), or just power it up and go. This has been true of many forms of technology, from the giant box camera to the cell phone camera, from the massive old Victrolas to the iPod.

So please, solar engineers, please: Make solar energy work for us! Make it work for those of us who are on tight budgets; make it work for those of us who are technologically or intellectually challenged. Make it as easy to use as electricity, please! Our Mother Earth will thank you.

* This whole water issue confused our friend Ben for many years. Didn’t water cycle, evaporating and falling, running through our plumbing and back into the ground, and so on? Wasn’t water a constant, rather than a finite resource that could be used up? Then why were the environmentalists all up in arms about our dwindling water supply? Despite a Master of Science degree, I’m no scientist (my M.S. is in horticulture), so my hypothesis may be all wrong. But it finally occurred to me that our water supplies must be dwindling because we’re holding the water rather than releasing it back to the atmosphere and waterways: holding it in our own bodies as our population continues to grow and grow; holding it in lawn grasses where lawns were never meant to be; holding it for industrial, urban, and agricultural purposes; and so on. If that’s true, it would explain why our water resources continue to dwindle.



1. Alan - February 20, 2009

Solar won’t work for me, even if I had an engineering degree so I could maintain the system. We only have enough sun about 53% of the time. What do we do the rest of the time? I’ve some ideas, but I won’t clutter your comments with them.

As far as the water thing goes, I think the problem is that we are eliminating the natural systems that hold and filter the water. It gets polluted and rushed to the sea. Once it is there getting it back into the fresh water system takes a while.

Hi Alan! Our property’s actually both shady and windy—ideal for wind power, less so for solar. But we still fantasize about putting solar panels up out at the south-facing greenhouse! And thanks for your thoughts on the water issue: VERY good points!

2. Daphne Gould - February 20, 2009

As to the water issue, we have serious issues here in the Boston area. We are paving over all the areas that used to absorb the water. Our town used to flood every 50-100 years, now it is every 5-6. Little of the water soaks into the soil. It all ends up in the streams and rivers then out to sea. Our upstream neighboring town just keeps paving over more and more area. We need permeable pavers and rain gardens to help with the issue.

I so want solar on my next house. I’m hoping there are enough companies that do that kind of thing. I don’t want to do the plumbing for my house and don’t want to put in the solar either. Though I think solar heat (here in the north) is so much of a better choice. The payback time of that is usually less than 10 years (can be as less than 5 depending upon how much sun and how much cold you get and your state’s incentives). PV is much less efficient (though I want that too). If you lived in California there are very cool companies out there that will put up leased PV on your roof. They do the work. They own the system. You pay rent for it. You can lower your energy bill and not have to deal with the system yourself, also no huge outlays at the start. I really don’t think it is an issue of the engineers (they just need to make it cheaper and more efficient), it is an issue of construction work. There need to be more companies that do the job of installation around the country and help you through the paper work to deal with all the incentives that exist.

Great points, Daphne! I remember when I was working in Gloucester how the flooding of the Boston Tunnel made headlines (along with the Red Sox triumph). Paving over the spongy areas that normally would filter runoff is a huge issue!

3. Cinj - February 21, 2009

Well, they have solar power for caculators figured out, it can’t be THAT much longer for everything else can it? Well, okay. Maybe it will, but one can hope for a miracle.

I know; I keep looking at all those solar-powered lights and signs on our highways and thinking, sheesh, it can’t be that hard! Sigh…

4. Ratty - February 21, 2009

I’ve been waiting for solar energy too. I love the idea of independent living, but with modern convenience. I watch every bit of new solar technology they come up with, but I agree, it’s not ready yet. I guess if it were, we’d all be using it now.

Right you are, Ratty! Meanwhile, here’s hoping…

5. Alan - February 23, 2009

I think I’ll do my solar by letting the trees collect it for me (they grow here even when we don’t want them to, so I might as well use that for something.) and then burning some of the copiced wood in a micro steam turbine. A small steam engine can run a 10 KW generator without too much trouble. That could easily keep a battery bank charged to run everything I need here on our farm, plus it provides hot water for heat and other uses as a “waste” product. Depending on the storage capacity in the battery bank it would only need to be run a few hours a week. Yes, it takes more effort and knowledge than the current system, but that is the price of independence. The benefit is it isn’t dependent on anyone else and it is completely carbon neutral. Mostly we need to get out of the box and stop waiting for someone (business, science, the government, etc) to fix the problem. They either cant or wont, or if they do it will be in a way that will benefit them not us.

Wow, what a fantastic idea, Alan! We should have known you’d come up with something!

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