The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Full Power Ahead

Posted by | July 18, 2014

Energy supplies

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 7/20/2014.

If the Wells Reserve at Laudholm had an oil well and a refinery and a power plant on site, we could keep the lights on, fill up our heating oil tank, and top off my Volkswagen every day for cheap. But we don’t. That’s just one of the drawbacks of fossil fuels: the infrastructure needs are enormous. Add the geopolitical strife, the pollution, and the finite supply of oil, coal, and natural gas, and it’s a wonder that our society uses the stuff as greedily as we do.

We can’t live without energy. Fossil fuels power the global economic engine, and they’re immensely profitable to their producers. If only they didn’t have those annoying consequences. If fossil fuels were as vast, inexhaustible, and reliable as the sun that rises daily over our heads, they’d be great.

Fossil fuels are solar power, if you think about it. Over hundreds of millions of years, plants used energy from the sun to take water and the carbon dioxide in the air to build themselves up. (A byproduct of that photosynthetic process is the oxygen we breathe.) Ultimately, those plants died, were buried, and got compressed into oil and coal and gas, storing that solar energy underground. Three hundred years ago, we humans started digging up and burning those compressed plants at incredible rates, advertently releasing those millions of years of stored sunshine back into the atmosphere in a considerably shorter time than they took to form. Is it a surprise that things are warming up?

Meanwhile, that giant nuclear fusion reactor in space has continued to rain down 20,000 times more energy annually than all of humanity consumes in a year. If only we could harvest even a little of that limitless energy from the sun. But solar power is too expensive, too intermittent, too hippy, and too negligible to make a difference – that’s what the naysayers say, anyway. If you believe the oil industry-funded propaganda from the Institute for Energy Research, solar power will never be competitive.

So they say. But in the past 18 months, more solar generating capacity was installed in the U.S. than in the 30 years prior. Talk about a hockey stick graph. What’s causing this exponential growth? For one thing, solar panel production prices have fallen precipitously: from $40 a watt in 1979 when President Carter put panels on the White House, to $11 a watt when President Reagan took them down in 1986, to $1 a watt when President Obama put them back up. (Fun Maine fact: 16 of Carter’s solar panels wound up at Unity College in 1992.)

The federal stimulus spurred solar investment, which helped the technology improve. In 2008, oil hit $140 a barrel while we were fighting in Iraq – price shocks and wars usually force folks to consider oil’s true costs. Solar power still only accounts for less than 1% of global energy consumption… but that’s increased a lot in even just the past five years. Maybe the balance is finally tipping towards solar. Maybe the world is realizing that it is possible.

Germany, the worldwide leader in solar power (and soccer) hit a milestone last month: as a country, it generated more than 50% of its electrical demand from the sun, with a goal of 100% by 2050. What’s especially exciting about that is that the lower 48 United States, including Maine, are all sunnier than Germany. If they can do it, we can too.

That’s why the Wells Reserve at Laudholm is going “100% solar” this year. To us, going solar doesn’t just mean less carbon pollution dumped into our kids’ future. It means that, this year, we can actually move from Saudi-reliance to self-reliance, from dirty fires to “no moving parts,” from 18th century power to the edge of innovation. Because we have the will and the way, and because we’ve raised almost all the up-front money we need, we will soon be the first nonprofit in Maine to generate all our electrical needs from the sun. It’s not only the smart and liberating thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, night and day. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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