Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, Macy’s, BJ’s, Sam’s Club, REI… They’re all racing to put up solar panels. Why are they racing? Well, of course there’s a very good financial incentive to do it now: energy costs are rising, and oh yeah, the deadline for a tax break is December 31st! Read more here.
Is it “Solar’s Time” for the rest of us? Well, installing solar isn’t cheap, and some even wonder if it’s a worthwhile endeavor due to its high initial cost, low efficiency (using approximately 40% of the energy input), and the fragility of the equipment (panels have to be cleaned regularly, and since the panels are fragile they often need to be replaced).
Having said that, if I could afford it, I would probably install solar panels or a windmill or a micro-hydro turbine simply because it is so far the best option to reduce a family’s carbon -and overall environmental- footprint. Unfortunately as of yet, there is not perfect green power:
Here in Seattle our electricity mainly comes from hydroelectric power, which is technically “green” power, but has all sorts of problems attached. Aside from violating treaties, the many Columbia River dams have decimated the salmon population and have significantly altered major ecosystems. Environmentalists and Native Americans fought hard to tear down some of Washington state’s 200 dams, but most are left standing.
Hydroelectric power generates around 10% of total US electricity.
In Geyserville, the geothermal plants – once upon a time a resort where the wealthy flocked to take steam baths – are now a mess of truly ugly piping and buildings spanning the one-beautiful hills. Interestingly, by opening the power plant, they increased the amount of seismic activity in the area – we felt them frequently. Plus apparently there was extreme controversy over the fresh water pumped from hundreds of miles away to help generate the power.
This year 103 new geothermal projects are underway in the US. However, geothermal still generates less than 1% of total US electricity.
Wind power also generates just 1% of total US electricity, though this number is much higher in other countries. In Germany, for instance, 40% of power comes from wind. All in all, wind is a very clean energy source, but it is not perfect. In the US, wind turbines kill approximately 70,000 birds per year. Fortunately this is a problem that could be mitigated somewhat by placing turbines outside of migration patterns; and studies have shown the larger turbines are not as likely to kill birds.
It looks like PG&E will be building floating wind turbines off the coast of Northern California, despite much controversy surrounding them. Offshore ocean turbines like these cause severe ocean noise that may cause serious harm to marine mammals such as porpoises, seals, and whales, by increasing their stress levels and decreasing their ability to communicate.
There are a few new solar technologies in the works that sound promising:
- 80% Efficient Solar Panel That Works At Night (Ecogeek)
- Major Discovery: Simple, Inexpensive, Highly Efficient Solar (MIT News)
Next to our local composting facility, a new biogas generator will be creating power from the excess methane.
But ultimately, I don’t know the answer for the long-term. My instinct is that generating power as close to home as possible will allow the least amount of overall impact because you can control the potential damages that could be created. Certainly micro-power (micro-hydro, micro-solar, micro-wind) is spreading as a solution for remote villages all over the world – in the Dominican Republic I was able to see some ingenious and fairly cheap solutions. But I wonder if that’s really an option for a country as big and as consuming as the U.S.?
While home solar, wind, and carefully placed micro-hydro may not be perfect solutions (yet..?), they certainly look better from here. Unfortunately many of us cannot afford those options, or we don’t live in areas where they are possible.
So until we find that perfect solution for the rest of us, we have to buy into green power whenever we can:
- Pressure local, state, and national politicians to find good alternative forms of energy – don’t let them choose coal, natural gas, or other non-sustainable sources.
- Most local power companies offer green power for a very slightly higher cost – that extra $0.02 makes a huge difference to the environment, but probably doesn’t affect your budget too much.
- If you can, support research on alternative forms of energy.
- But most importantly, remember that conservation is an extremely powerful part of the solution!
What Do You Think?
Do you have solar panels, windmills, or micro-hydro turbines? Would you if you could? Any hopes for a long-term energy solution that reduces our environmental impact and carbon output, and is cheap to produce?