The Global Citizen: Renewable Energy

The myth prevails that renewable, solar kinds of energy are exotic, unworkable, expensive and undependable. Meanwhile the 500 inmates of the Adams County, Colorado, jail use 20,000 gallons of sun-heated hot water a day. The investment to build the solar hot water system paid back within five years. East Montpelier Elementary School in Vermont is heated with a high-tech, low-pollution, wood-chip-gasifying furnace. It brought the school's annual heating bill down from $25,000 to $3,600, even though an addition expanded the building by 50 percent. The Kickapoo River flooded the business district of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, just one time too many. So the citizens moved their downtown out of the flood plain, and while they were at it, they designed the new buildings to get as much energy as possible from the sun. Soldiers Grove now has a grocery, pharmacy, bank, gas station, restaurant, clinic, library, post office, sixteen-unit housing complex for the elderly, and several homes, all primarily solar heated. The owner of the pharmacy, whose fuel bill has plummeted, says, "When things are close financially, this solar heating can make a real difference." After Hurricane Andrew tore down power lines for miles around, solar-powered streetlights in Cutler Ridge and Kendall, Florida, kept right on shining. Powered independently by their own photovoltaic panels and batteries, the lights worked fine without the central grid. During the three weeks the power was off, people gathered under the solar streetlights at night to play cards. These are just four of 70 stories about working, affordable renewable energy systems, north and south, big and small, all described in a new book by Nancy Cole and P.J. Skerrett called Renewables are Ready (Chelsea Green 1995). It's a factual book, intended to help people break the fossil-fuel habit. You can find there plenty of information about how renewable technologies work and how to contact the people who are using them. But I confess that I started by skipping the how-to stuff and just reading the stories. As author Nancy Cole says, "When politics are awful, and people are feeling beaten down, it's good to know something hopeful is happening." Maybe the best example of that hopefulness is the book's picture of the world's largest sun-powered electric generating plant right next to the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, which was shut down by public referendum. What will the Sacramento, California, utility do without the power from that mammoth nuclear plant? It plans to save 800 megawatts through increased energy efficiency (they call it the "Conservation Power Plant") and to install 400 megawatts of renewables. For starters, over the next six years 14,000 houses will receive solar hot-water systems. The city of Austin, Texas, has also done a nuclear-to-solar turnaround, thanks to a bunch of activists who call themselves the Tuesday Evening Lemonade Club. If you think a few idealists (who have done their homework) can't change city hall, the Austin story in Renewables Are Ready, will re-hearten you. "Solar looks better," says Janice Day, who lives on Second Mesa in Arizona. Her Hopi tradition does not allow power lines, partly because they interrupt the gorgeous mountain views, partly because they run over the land of people who get no benefit from them, and partly because the people don't want to pay increasing bills to an outside company. So Janice runs her lights, appliances, television, and VCR from solar panels. Says her husband Joseph, "Sometimes during winter storms we like to sit at home watching TV and see the lights go out in the village." The Hopi have formed a small company with their own electricians to install and maintain solar systems. Power from renewables has always been peoples' power. Maybe that's why large corporations and big-time politicians so instinctively perpetuate myths about its impracticability. No one can corner the sun or the wind. Every part of the country has a renewable source near at hand, whether it's falling water or wood or biogas from cow manure. Renewable energy systems can be owned and controlled by the community. They create jobs for local folks. The money they generate stays home. They don't make smog or acid rain or oily spills or radioactive brews, and you don't need a Navy fleet to defend them. So what's stopping us? The belief that renewables can only supply a trivial amount of energy? The Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that within 35 years the nation could be getting more than half its energy from renewables (and most of the rest from natural gas). "We can't wait for the politicians and the media to wake up," says Nancy Cole. "If it's going to be done, we'll have to do it ourselves." And we can, and we are, in Waverley, Iowa, and Medford, Massachusetts, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Ashland, Oregon. "All we've done in Renewables are Ready," says Cole, "is to give visibility and voice to a movement that's already there."

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