Harness the Sun, Philip Warburg. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.
Summary: A survey of the spread of solar power throughout the U.S. telling the stories of how different communities are utilizing this power source, and the technological, industry, and political challenges this growth faces.
I’ve had thoughts of installing a solar power array on our roof. We have a south-facing roof that gets lots of sunlight (when the sun is shining in somewhat-cloudy Ohio). Right now, we have a few more years on our current roof, and a few other projects ahead in line. But what I read in this book suggests that this is not a completely crazy idea, particularly if costs continue to drop.
Warburg surveys the different ways solar is being utilized around the country. He begins with his own experience of installing a solar array in his home in Massachusetts. He pointed out something I hadn’t realized–that solar is actually more efficient in cold weather when there is sun. His array has actually provided about 75 percent of his power needs.
He moves on from his personal experiences to the implementation of solar in the commercial world, from ball parks to big box stores. What all these offer are large areas of flat roof surfaces that can be covered with solar arrays. He narrates how communities are implementing solar to move toward a “zero net energy” state, particularly in the sunny west. Perhaps most inspiring, coming from a rustbelt town was how some communities, including Chicago, are using brownfield areas to set up solar arrays, involving far less clean-up than other purposes, and turning unproductive properties into revenue producing assets.
As he talks about the use of desert lands to set up arrays, he discusses the trade-offs that come with any technology, including the use of water to remove desert sand from panels, the impacts on wild-life, particularly in the use of concentrating solar power where an array of miracles are focused on a central point. Bird can literally be fried mid-air. Yet this also needs to be set against how many birds are killed by vehicles each year. There are other trade-offs in setting up solar arrays on Indian lands. On one hand, this is far healthier than coal-fired plants located near some of these lands, and yet other projects including casinos have a much better pay-off.
He also talks about the life-cycle of solar panels, which last 25 to 35 years optimally (some imports have had problems and lasted shorter times). One of the challenges is how to recycle these safely since they utilize some highly toxic materials. Yet it is important to offset these challenges with those of other technologies. Nuclear waste is far more hazardous. The environmental impacts of mining and burning coal and the costs of sequestering emissions also needs to be weighed. And all this brings Warburg to the economic challenges of solar, from its competition with other energy sources to the economic arrangements between power companies and array owners, sometimes individuals.
Whether or not you are convinced (I am but don’t want to argue about it) that anthropogenic (caused by humans) emissions of carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming, the case this book argues makes sense to me. One estimate is that the solar potential of the U.S. is one hundred times our power needs. Rooftop solar alone could provide one-fifth of our power needs. Compared to coal or even natural gas, it is a far “cleaner” power source, which has health impacts as well as environmental impacts. While some solar startups like Solyndra have failed, a number of others have created jobs in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of arrays. I also like the idea of not being completely reliant on our power company (we’ve nicknamed them Awfully Erratic Power), which primarily generates power from coal.
I would have appreciated some resources (beyond his own experience) for consumers (residential and commercial) contemplating solar. Perhaps that is another book but a chapter or appendix would have been helpful. Overall, I appreciated the highly informative yet balanced survey of the field of solar power. It makes a case that I hope our new administration pays heed to. Our carbon-fuel interests, as powerful as they are, represent only one economic community of interest, and frankly, we risk ceding leadership in this field to other nations if we only heed the interests of the big coal and natural gas. In my mind, that wouldn’t be so great.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.