New Internationalist

Here Comes The Sun…

Issue 284

Illustration by PJ POLYP
Here comes the sun...
and the wind and the rain
A tour around the possible future... some passion from Claire...
but will it dent Gloria’s scepticism?

Up a narrow lane they went until they reached The Quarry, a disused slate works, on a hill outside the small Welsh town of Machynllyth.

It was here that in the 1970s a handful of hippies and idealists tried to create an alternative way of living. They wanted an entirely self-sufficient community – and that meant devising their own energy systems.

‘Have you been here before?’ asked Gloria.

‘Oh yes.’ Claire’s eyes misted over slightly.

A romantic connection, wondered Gloria? Or was it just that she was a romantic? ‘And have you been back there recently?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes,’ she replied in a more matter-of-fact voice.

‘Has it changed much?’

‘Yes. It’s... um... matured. It’s now a Centre for Alternative Technology, the foremost in Europe. About 80,000 people pass through a year, including lots of school groups. They run residential courses on eco-building or on how to generate your own power. There are eco-cabins where people can stay and a restaurant and shop...’

‘And the politics?’

‘Less purist. More pragmatic. There aren’t the endless debates there used to be about whether one could use ready-made nails or whether one had to make one’s own. They still run the place as a co-operative, though...’

The pace of life seemed to slow right down as they came up the hill. They walked through organic gardens, past the bee house, past a solar-powered telephone kiosk. ‘Shall I call South Africa?!’ Gloria was about to say but Claire had already marched ahead in the direction of a wind turbine, poking out above the trees.

‘So,’ said Gloria, catching up, ‘what I want to know is if I had this in my backyard could it I run my house on it?’

‘You’d have to have a good wind-site, in the country probably.’

‘And if I didn’t... If I lived in a city or a suburb?’

‘You might be better getting your power from a windfarm...’

‘And where might I find one of those.’

‘There are a few in this country. But California and Denmark are the places where windpower’s really taken off. In California windfarms already supply the equivalent of all of San Francisco’s domestic power needs. What they are doing in Denmark is really interesting. People get together in groups and buy a wind turbine or group of turbines which provides them with the electricity they need, and they sell off any surplus to the national grid. About half of Denmark’s wind turbines are owned and operated in this way.’

‘Mmm... But is it a real option as a main source of energy? Can wind power ever really produce enough energy to supply an industrialized nation, for example?’

‘Well, it’s reckoned that in Europe windpower could meet all the continent’s electricity needs. The European Wind Energy Association’s proposal is rather more modest. They reckon it would be quite feasible to meet ten per of cent of the European Union’s needs by 2030 using turbines, and if you put them all together – not that you would – they would occupy an area about the size of Crete.’

‘Ha! So they occupy land that could be used for agriculture...’

‘And could still – 99 per cent of the land would still be available to agriculture around the windmills.’ Touché, thought Claire, but managed to stop herself saying it. But just as she basked, Gloria was coming back with another point.

‘One thing that seems to get missed out by you renewable energy people is employment. What about all the jobs that are going to be lost in the energy industry?’

‘Well, I’m not sure about that,’ Claire twitched. ‘I mean, look at this European Wind Energy proposal. The manufacture of turbines will employ about 50,000 people and operation and maintenance of windpower will create another 100,000 rural jobs...’

‘It’s not like coal mining though...’

‘It’s something that will have to be addressed... I’m not sure how. But don’t underestimate the new energy jobs that will be created by renewables – safer, healthier jobs too.’

‘Some people would argue that an unsafe job is better than no job.’

They meandered on and came across a windpowered water pump, devised by Dulas, a local alternative engineering company, for a group of Eritreans who visited the Centre in the 1980s.

‘This system has really taken off in Africa. It’s good for irrigation.’

Gloria nodded, now looking at a water turbine powered by a nearby lake. ‘So what’s the power source being used in this Centre, then?’

‘Everything you see. Let’s go to the power house, I’ll show you how it works.’

They walked past a biomass woodchip burner and came to a big board on which all the energy systems were displayed: there was micro-hydro, windpower, solar, biomass, diesel...

‘Diesel!’ shouted Gloria. ‘But that’s sacrilege!’ She looked aghast.

Claire couldn’t help laughing. ‘Yes, fossil fuels come on as a stop-gap. And actually I think it’s okay to use a little, in a limited way. ’

‘Huh!’

Claire explained the series of computerized trips and switches in the power house, how the most productive source of power was automatically selected to come on stream depending on the weather or water level conditions.

‘So in your renewable future are we all expected to have a great power house in our backyards and half a dozen different energy systems..?’

‘No. This is not a model to be repeated on this scale. It just demonstrates the different energy options available on a far larger scale.’

‘Mmm... And what’s this about solar? Where’s that?’

Claire led her to the solar installation. ‘Now there is one unfortunate thing about this installation,’ said Claire once they reached the panels. ‘It is built in what is probably the least sunny spot in Europe! But anyway, it seems to be producing power today.’

‘How can you tell?’

Claire showed her a miniature fairground roundabout being driven by power from the panels.

‘Sweet,’ commented Gloria, ‘but it’s hardly going to power a steel plant.’

‘No, for that you need a big installation in an area that gets lots of direct sunlight, like they have in the Mojave desert in California or in Israel.’

Gloria looked at the clouds passing across the sky, reflected in the panels.

‘You know I’m not at all convinced by solar power. I don’t think it’s got the potential...’

‘Potential!’ Claire exploded. ‘It has enormous potential... it has greater potential than anything else! Just a quarter of an hour of sunlight offers more energy than humanity consumes in a whole year! Now not all that is usable but what is is still 1,000 times more than the world currently consumes...’

‘And how much of our energy comes from solar power at the moment?’

‘Just 0.001 per cent’

‘What? If solar is so great why isn’t everyone using it?’

‘The simple answer is it’s still much more expensive to generate electricity from solar than from conventional systems. And the reason for that is that the funding for research and development has been pathetic. While fossil fuels get huge amounts of research and development money, solar gets peanuts.’

She fumbled in her bag. ‘I’ve got some figures somewhere. It really beggars belief. Ah, here! Do you know that the US spent less on solar research in a year than it costs to buy just one fighter plane? Worldwide more than $200 billion is spent on direct subsidies to fossil fuels to help keep the prices down. Solar gets nothing! No wonder fossil fuels appear cheaper. But it’s a false economy. We are just paying for them out of another pocket. Not to mention the environmental price!’

Claire was well away by now: ‘The whole world’s energy system is skewed in favour of the fossil fuels and the multinationals that control them. It’s scandalous really. What’s amazing is how much solar research has achieved with so little help. It’s got much more efficient and the price of photovoltaic panels has gone down tenfold in the past 20 years!’

Gloria was somewhat quietened by Claire’s passionate outburst. They both sat looking at the panels. Gloria went over to them and read what was written there.

If you were asked to design the ideal energy conversion system it would be pretty difficult to come up with anything better than the solar photovoltaic cell. It harnesses the energy source that is by far the most abundant of those available on the planet. It’s clean – very small amounts of toxic chemicals are used in the manufacture of cells, but that’s all; there are no emissions. The photovoltaic cell itself is made from the second most abundant element after oxygen in the earth’s crust – silicon. It has no moving parts and cannot therefore, in theory, wear out. And its output is electricity, probably the most useful of all forms of energy.

She then looked at charts showing the decline in price. The average market price of PV cells plunged dramatically from $30 in 1975 to around $3.5 per peak watt hour now. In a few years time, analysts reckoned, it would be no more expensive than electricity produced by nuclear power.

‘I suppose the technology is controlled by the North,’ Gloria remarked to Claire who had come up alongside her.

‘At the moment most cells are being made in the US, Japan, Germany and France, but Brazil, China, India and Pakistan have started making their own. What tends to happen is that countries start by importing modules to assemble themselves – they are doing that in parts of Africa now – and then move on to actually making the cells themselves.’

When they got back to their Bed & Breakfast Claire eagerly presented Gloria with another stack of papers. ‘I thought you might like...’

‘What, more reading matter!’

‘Well... of course you don’t have to...’ muttered Claire, feeling suddenly embarrassed by her own evangelism.

But Gloria was already taking the bundle from her. ‘We’ll see. If those moaning eco-friendly windmills keep me awake all night I might welcome something to read...’

That night Gloria was not kept awake by windmills, but she read all the same. First she picked up a newspaper clipping:

Easy power: maintaining solar panels in Sudan involves the occasional dusting down.
HARTMUT SCHWARZBACH /
STILL PICTURES

Scheer’s revolution
‘I have no doubt that the day will come when the only energy used on this earth will be solar,’ says Hermann Scheer, the charismatic German former Energy Minister and founder of the pressure group Eurosolar.

He is calling for a ‘Solar Revolution’ with the replacement of all nuclear and fossil fuels within the next four decades. ‘Only a fully solar global energy economy can preserve the ecosphere,’ he maintains.

Scheer wants an international ‘solar proliferation treaty’ that will bring us into the Solar Age and break the reactionary stranglehold of vested interests, both corporate and government. And his views are rapidly gaining ground in his native Germany.

The main opposition SPD party has said that an ecological economy based on renewable energies will be the main plank of its policy.

Scheer, who is the SPD spokesperson on Agriculture and the Environment, has introduced a Solar Initiative Bill in the German Parliament designed to finance the conversion of 100,000 roofs to photovoltaics. This would mark the beginning of a whole new industry and employ 30,000 people...’

Gloria picked up Scheer’s book A Solar Manifesto. She read his scathing critique of the small-mindedness of the decision-making élites who slashed research on renewable energy the moment oil prices went down in the 1980s. In the US the 1990 research and development budget for renewables was a mere 12 per cent of the 1981 budget. In Canada it fell to 16 per cent, in the UK to 50 per cent and in Australia and Aotearoa/ New Zealand it dwindled to almost nothing.

Scheer wrote:

‘...it is obvious that support for solar energy was kept deliberately small, even though it is the newest and most wide-reaching area of publicly supported energy research... Disinformation was spread about the efficiency of solar energy technologies and positive results were downplayed... As this has been happening in virtually all countries, it leads one to conclude that this is due to a colluding international opinion Mafia.’

Gloria wondered how much she had been influenced by the ‘colluding international opinion Mafia’.

She picked up another book, entitled The Hydrogen Solar Future by John O’M Bockris and T Nejat Veziroglu, Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University, and Director of the Clean Energy Research Institute in Miami, respectively. The subtitle was: The power to save the earth. Fuel forever.

‘Well, they can’t be accused of underselling their own theory,’ she remarked. But she found it intriguing all the same: solar hydrogen coupling

Solar Hydrogen Coupling
‘The solar energy scheme we are putting forward here is sometimes called the solar-hydrogen energy system. Put simply, solar energy is converted to electricity; to get the electricity over long distances or for use at night the electricity is used to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen... The hydrogen is sent through pipelines, just as natural gas is today, to cities and towns.

The benefit of this system is that by putting excess electricity to work by producing hydrogen, it is not wasted. In addition it is cheaper and more efficient to transport through pipelines than to send the excess electricity over wires and through cables. Finally, and most beneficial of all, hydrogen and solar energy do not pollute: when hydrogen is used to supply heat or energy, water is the by-product.

Our solar energy will be around for a few billion more years – it is everlasting as far as we are concerned – and we would obtain hydrogen from water, and that won’t run out either as water is the by-product of burning hydrogen. Thus solar hydrogen is a clean and renewable system.

So many of the natural processes on our planet are self-sustaining – the circulatory systems of animals and humans, the respiratory system of animals, humans and plants, the food chain, and the earth’s water cycle. Doesn’t it make sense that our energy should be derived from a renewable system too?’

‘Neat,’ she thought. ‘And convincing.’ She closed her eyes and tried to imagine how a renewable energy future would look. Would there be huge solar power installations in the Sahara or massive windfarms covering hillsides or stretched along coastlines. Or would it be each individual household with its own system?

She picked out a personal testimony from a young North American woman called Sara Chamberlain:

Holland plans to install solar panels on 100,000 homes by 2010 and Japan has plans for 70,000 by 2005. The UK agreed to help fund a grand total of two houses.
MIKE SCHRODER / STILL PICTURES

Off the grid
We moved to Northern California in 1976, when I was eight. My parents’ idealistic plan was to build a cabin in the woods and live self-sufficiently off the land. Although they soon realized that it was cheaper to buy lentils than grow them, they managed to make their dream of a solar and hydro energy-powered house a reality – and said goodbye to electricity bills forever.

Our solar power system developed thanks to the experiments of our landpartner, John Harnish. In 1980 he discovered Real Goods: a small local store that sold a variety of solar panels and alternative energy equipment, which today is one of the largest alternative power hardware retailers in North America.

Initially John bought one solar panel, capable of producing approximately 30 watts of power per hour of sunlight, for $260. He also bought two 12-volt golf-cart batteries (for $60 each) to store the power generated by the solar panels, and 12 feet of household electrical wire to link them together.

He hung the solar panel on the sunny side of his house, using a few nails, connected the batteries and ran some wires into the house. Now he could plug in three 15-watt halogen bulbs (which give off three times as much light as regular bulbs) for six hours a night. That night, as the stars of the Big Dipper came out one by one above the oak trees, John read the Tao of Physics by the bright light of an electric lamp.

My parents followed suit. They bought one 30-watt solar panel for $260, and one 70-watt panel for $385, and six golf-cart batteries for $360. Seventeen years later, this $1,110 solar system still faithfully powers 12 lights, a blender, fan, and answering machine; and allows my 69-year-old father and 64-year-old mother to surf the Internet on their computer and download information on their printer. Satisfied with these basic amenities, my parents haven’t ever needed to expand their solar system.

However, 1979 brought a succession of monsoon-style storms. Weeks of non-stop rain climaxed in a snowstorm. The panels stopped functioning, we drained the batteries dead, and were forced to re-light our kerosene lamps. Attempting to decipher A Tale of Two Cities in semi-darkness, we realized we needed a winter-weather alternative.

John came to our rescue. Over the years he had struck up a friendship with a man called Ross Burkhart, who had invented one of the first micro-hydro energy systems, the ‘Burkhart pelton wheel’. When the wheel was put in a box, and water fed through it, the wheel would spin around turning a shaft which powered an alternator and generated electricity. All it needed was water that dropped at least 200 feet before entering the box.

John bought one of Ross’s pelton wheels, some piping, wire and batteries, and rigged it up at the edge of a nearby creek. The Burkhart pelton wheel, which can now be purchased from Real Goods for $265, produces 1,000 to 10,000 watts of power per day during the winter, which is more than enough electricity to satisfy even the most power-hungry....

Today, come rain or shine, my parents can read the New York Times on the Internet, and John’s eight-year-old son Bodhi can play computer games without ever having had to connect to the grid.

‘Crazy Americans,’ Gloria concluded. Though she had to admit they did make things sound so easy...

She thought of the remote rural communities in South Africa, desperate to link up to the National Grid, as though this were the be-all and end-all. She also knew in her heart of hearts that they would have to wait a very long time, and in the meantime they could be generating their own power.

She picked out another piece, also about inventive ways of adapting to change in rural North America.

This article was written by Canadian Stephen Leahy:

With cuts to income-support programs and the increasing globalization of agriculture, North American farmers are looking to their past to find ways to survive in the future. Often forming new co-operative enterprises, farmers are turning waste straw into building materials, corn into fuel, wheat starch into plastics, soybeans into inks and milk into paints and glues.

Farmers are also growing non-traditional crops like kenaf to make paper, milkweed to replace goose down in pillows and, now that it is legal in Canada, hemp. The strong, breathable fibre of the non-narcotic hemp plant has hundreds of uses from jeans to linens. When the full environmental cost of using petrochemicals is considered, it’s clear the next century belongs to living plants, not long-dead ones.

Gloria liked that idea. It made her think about possible building materials for South Africa’s housing program. Traditional adobe or mud was in many ways the best material, but it was considered insufficiently ‘modern’. She’d enjoy telling people back home that North Americans were building houses with straw stubble!

The idea of renewables was growing on her.

‘Maybe that place has had an effect on me,’ she mused as she was dropping off to sleep and recalling the quietly inventive atmosphere of the Centre. Meanwhile in the next room Claire was lying awake thinking: ‘Oh my God, why is she so resistant? I really wasn’t prepared for such scepticism. I doubt my thinking has had any impact on her whatsoever. She obviously thinks I’m just some wet, white, greenie liberal. Oh well... only a couple more days to go...’

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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