Solar Future Now
Saving the world, one rooftop at a time.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
I am amazed to find myself sitting in a solar-powered office, composing this column on a solar-powered computer. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I can’t get over it. From where I sit, it seems like it was too easy, like it happened too fast.
It was less than a month ago that my colleagues and I first heard about this plan to go solar. Two weeks ago, a bunch of trucks showed up and surrounded the office, and for 10 days a gang of workers swarmed around on the roof. Then it was done, and absolutely nothing changed.
My Mini-Mac is as fast as ever. My solar-powered lamp illuminates the clutter on my desk just as brightly as before. Everything feels exactly the same as it did when our building was plugged into Moss Landing.
It’s remarkable that a bank of panels on the roof can do the same work as a power plant.
Everybody knows that solar-generated electricity works exactly like real electricity, but it’s still remarkable to witness first-hand that a bank of silent silicon-and-glass panels on the roof can do the same work as a monstrous power plant.
For sure, part of what feels good about entering the solar-powered world is that it means leaving behind the smog-belching, planet-suffocating world of fossil-fuel technology. Installing a photovoltaic system is a genuine, pragmatic response to the problem of global warming. It’s also a potent rejection—symbolic and real—of the oil economy, with its thriving legacy of pollution and war.
Solar power is good largely because of all the things it isn’t. But lately, I have grown to embrace green technology even more for what it could be.
Over the past couple of years, I have begun to believe in the possibility that we could witness a technological revolution in our lifetimes. I am not wildly optimistic about it, and at the same time I do not see it as a far-fetched fantasy.
Lots of smart scientists and engineers have been working for decades to invent and build systems like the one that now sits above my head. Evidence abounds that the tools exist to make similar changes on a much bigger scale. What’s lacking, we are often told, is the will to make it happen. And that seems to be changing too.
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This week’s cover story reports that solar installations in California have doubled in each of the past two years—largely due to a state program that makes it easier for owners of homes and businesses to pay for the conversion. That trend is likely to continue and probably even accelerate.
Rising energy costs are already making alternative technologies like solar more attractive for purely financial reasons. Enlightened politicians are also fueling the impetus for change; the Democrat-controlled legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are poised to expand the state’s solar program this year.
More money flowing toward green tech could very well ignite a virtuous cycle—funding the development of improved technology and driving down prices, thereby attracting more buyers and more money, etc.
Big-thinking green-tech advocates envision these modest steps leading to a massive re-tooling of the nation’s energy system. They call for an ambitious nationwide campaign, modeled after the mission to put an American on the moon. They point to the government-funded Internet and imagine an even more radical shift in the way the world does business.
The justifications for such an undertaking are profound and clearly apparent—except to those who believe global warming is a myth and the Iraq war is a good thing. Abandoning fossil fuels would be the single best thing this generation could do for the future. That’s so obvious it seems almost dumb to say it.
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In addition to saving the planet, alternative-energy technology could do good things for the economy. It may be crass, but it’s worthwhile to consider the short-term financial benefits that could grow out of a green-tech revolution.
I hadn’t really considered this idea until I heard Bill Clinton talk about it, when he visited Monterey for the Panetta Lecture Series in September 2003. During that talk, he laid out a scenario in which a shift from fossil-fuels to alternative energy spurs an economic boom.
Clinton invited his audience to imagine every home and business in the country tooling up with the new green gear, just as they tooled up with computers and software during the years when he was president. Clean technology, he said, could be the Next Big Thing. The idea didn’t sound half-crazy then and it makes even more sense today.
That may happen someday. For now, the Weekly is one of only a handful of solar-powered businesses in Monterey County. I’m glad—but I still can hardly believe it.