Watt’s Happening?

by Don Pettit for Peace Energy Cooperative www.peaceenergy.ca ph 250-782-3882

Solar Power: our energy income

With no noise or pollution, solar electric panels can be placed anywhere: on your roof or in your yard. This rural home is one of thousands in Ontario now powered by sunlight. (photo by Peace Energy Coop director Roy Mumby)


h, it’s so frustrating.

Streaming photons have dutifully traveled 93 million miles from our great nuclear fusion reactor in the sky (the Sun), made their way through our dense atmosphere, and finally poured onto my bright new shiny roof-top solar array in Dawson Creek. The 23, 230 watt solar panels are all nicely interconnected, and lovely big cables are poised to deliver 5000 watts of clean solar energy into the inverter, which hangs dutifully next to my fuse box in the basement, standing ready to convert that wonderful solar direct current electricity into grid-friendly alternating current. Only a switch need be thrown to channel that sun power into my building, powering it and

feeding excess into the grid. But alas, nothing yet flows. The electrical inspection went smoothly last week. No problems. No issues. Now, again, I wait for paperwork. Frustrating. Soon, I am told, soon. So, while we’re waiting, lets talk energy. Then I’ll bust a few common myths about renewables in general and solar electricity in particular. SPENDING OUR ENERGY CAPITAL All energy comes from the sun, either directly or indirectly. Fossil fuels are solar energy that has been captured by ancient plants, buried, concentrated and stored underground millions of years ago. When

burned, they release that stored energy (and a long list of other less desirable things!). Their “energy density” is very high, making them very powerful, and they come in many useful forms, including solid (coal), liquid (oil) and gas. Fossil fuels represent our planet’s energy “capital.” It’s there, it’s available, and it works. But after just 100 years of intense use, its’ getting harder to extract (more and more energy input is needed per unit of output), and the price of burning it is catching up with us, big time (think oil spills, pollution of land, air and water, climate change . . .). Besides, burning our energy capital is kind of like burning up your retirement fund on big cars and trips to Hawaii: great fun, but eventually you’ll end up homeless on the street with nothing to eat. SPENDING OUR ENERGY INCOME Renewable energy, in all of its forms, represents our energy “income”, not it’s capital. When we tap into renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal) we are tapping into energy that is constantly being created in real time, the same energy that is powering most of the on-going planetary activity that surrounds us: all plant and animal life, weather, ocean currents, etc. That’s A LOT of power! Many thousands of times more than we could ever use, and many thousands of times more than the energy stored in all the planet’s fossil fuels, past, present and future. And, (here’s the real bonus) it doesn’t run out, and it doesn’t pollute!

Solar power, being simply sunlight (the primal energy source beamed directly to earth) converted directly to electricity, is perhaps the “purest” and most abundant of all energy sources. Each year, about 9 million kilowatt-hours of solar energy fall on each acre of generally sunny earth. That means that the solar energy falling on the roof of a house, even at the modest conversion efficiency of a photovoltaic panel (about 15%) is enough to power that house. JUST ASK JAPAN Is solar power practical? Just ask Japan. Last year Japanese citizens installed some 3,600 megawatts of solar on their homes and work places, a world record. That’s the equivalent of three Site C dams, or three nuclear reactors, in ONE YEAR! Terrified of another nuclear disaster, Japan is going solar, big time. Solar panels are energy intensive to manufacture: silicon, glass, aluminum, etc. Do they really make energy and carbon sense? Yes they do. Embodied energy and carbon is worked off by the panel’s output in 3 to 5 years, depending on how sunny the location. Then they go on working for another three-plus decades. My first solar panel, on my small home system, was purchased 28 years ago and is still working just fine thank you. There is no technical reason why modern panels will not produce electricity for a century or more. The world is going solar, for many very, very good reasons. I just wish my paperwork would come through . . .

Watt’s Happening? Quick Fact:
BREATH EASIER WITH RENEWABLES: to mark the recent historic shutdown of Ontario’s last coalfired power plant, the president of the Asthma Society of Canada wrote: “Renewable energy may not yet be perfect, but it isn’t killing us. Dirty air is.”