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Solar Power for the People! February 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

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.

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