Rays of Future Present: Solar in Southeast Como

It's hard to pick the one best reason to transition away from fossil fuels -- minimizing climate change, forestalling environmental degradation, ameliorating the inevitable economic dislocations as oil starts to run out. Instead, we should start selecting technologies with the highest chance of extracting us from these assorted messes.

Minnesota Monitor has an interesting item about solar power generation in the Southeast Como neighborhood, where the Green Institute worked with neighbors and a local solar installer to jump start solar thermal energy in the Twin Cities. Solar thermal energy, designed in this case to heat water, is technologically distinct from the more high-profile photovoltaic electricity generation projects, but the upshot's the same -- building a workable ecological alternative to oil and gas power.

It's easy to assume that with the state's long winters, solar would be unfeasible here. A study [PDF] of the local project by the Green Institute reveals that Minnesota's climate is actually better than you'd think for solar energy.

Because of the cold, we have a comparatively greater need for hot water than other locales, so a solar thermal system here can save more energy than a place like Phoenix. And Minnesota's solar resources are comparable to Houston, Texas -- and exceed those of Germany, where they've already developed three times the solar energy capacity of the entire U.S.

It's a timely issue. There's a new Scientific American article this month that says solar energy could end dependence on foreign oil by 2050, slashing greenhouse emissions in the process. From the story:

"Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006."

Rays of Future Present: Solar in Southeast Como

A solar panel.

The Scientific American plan would be a grand solar electric project centered in the American southwest, distinct in aims, technology and scale from our local initiative. But that's the point -- shifting away from petroleum products requires multiple strategies, national and otherwise.

The standard oppositional line on alternative energy used to be that we didn't have sufficient technology, that expense would be prohibitive, and that we were stuck with the fossil fuel economy inevitably. If this was true once, it is demonstrably false now -- a bevy of strategies, proven and promising, are out there.

Some fit better than others. Unlike Hawaii, we can't do Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion here, and maybe a place like Buffalo is better suited to wind power than energy from the sun. Solar may not be the answer, but it's an answer, a piece of the puzzle that makes sense in many communities. Once that's been acknowledged, it's a question of which emerging energy economy makes sense in the particular part of the world one finds oneself.

Regarding solar thermal energy here in Minnesota, the Green Institute report had some insights:

* Advancing energy efficiency is key, and in fact is more desirable than generating more power. Investing in new energy comes with expense, and that investment may not be recouped for more than a decade. Creating green energy makes sense; saving energy makes more.

* Solar thermal energy is especially suited for multi-family homes and homes with inefficient electric water heaters. The economics of these living situations make sun power advantageous (and future natural gas prices play a major role in determining how advantageous).

* A state rebate program for solar thermal (one already exists for solar electric) is needed to promote further growth.

One more appropriate excerpt from that Scientific American piece: "The greatest obstacle to implementing a renewable U.S. energy system is not technology or money ... [i]t is the lack of public awareness that solar power is a practical alternative."

Scientists have long held that the last six words of that sentence are true. Seventeen homes in Southeast Como are helping to prove it.

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