By Derek Girling
HelioPower Solar Energy Consultant
Like most of my colleagues at HelioPower, I joined the solar industry because of my concern for our environment. As a recreational outdoorsman, I appreciate the need to escape the city and spend time in our undeveloped wilderness areas as often as possible. The more I understood the detrimental effects on both our environment and our health from conventional energy production, the more I wanted to be a part of the solution! With it’s proven technology, helping homeowners and businesses go solar is one of the fastest and best ways to make an impact.
Although the environment is what attracted me to solar, I find myself spending most of my time discussing money. While almost everyone would agree that we should be environmentally responsible, our own budgets usually are a big determinant in our ability to commit. Fortunately over the last few years, solar electricity generation has become affordable and an extremely attractive investment. Investment in the form of government tax credits and stakeholder subsidies has driven this cost reduction and prices are now the same or lower as utility rates in many parts of the country.
Economics aside, we must never forget the environment.
By almost every measure, the energy source that causes the greatestdestruction of our environment and degradation of our health is coal. Burning coal generates 54% of the electricity consumed in the U.S. (and 70% in China!) and virtually every step of the process including mining, transporting, burning, and disposing of the remnants represents an environmental as well as human catastrophe.
To start, the most economical method of getting to the coal is by using explosives to literally blow away the surface of earth covering the veins of coal. In 2006, 1.72 million metric tons of explosives were used for coal removal. The remaining contaminated earth is then pushed into adjacent areas destroying life and fouling nearby watersheds.
Next the coal must be broken up and transported via trucks to be burned at the power plants. This uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuel. The trucks also require new roads and introduce tons of exhaust fumes into the mountains of the mostly rural coal-rich areas. Burning the coal to generate electricity then releases millions of more tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. In fact, burning coal is the number one source of air-pollution in the US.
The coal industry, sensing a turning tide, markets the term “Clean Coal.” This is an oxymoron. Their theory is that scrubbers will remove many of the solid particulates that become airborne during combustion. These particulates are then collected into toxic slurry, which is then transported, again via truck to be buried underground further threatening groundwater supplies. Remarkably, some of this by-product called fly ash is used as a soil amendment!
Two recent events underscore the dangers of coal – the billion ton sludge spill in Harriman, Tennessee in 20o8 and the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners in April of this year. These events drive home the fact that coal is devastating to the environment and puts human life at risk. As James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, concludes phasing out emissions from coal “is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.”
By contrast, solar panels, once assembled and installed, passively sit in the sun producing electricity for decades and emit nothing!
Installing a solar power system today will not eliminate coal-generated
electricity. But millions of homes and businesses installing solar panels as well as other energy efficiency measures over the next decade will reduce our coal dependency significantly!
My mid-life career change into solar was motivated by my desire to positively effect our environment. Every system HelioPower brings online represents a step in the right direction.
We don’t have to drop what we’re doing and go back to the stone age; I’m a firm believer in the possibility of a future of sustainable energy and food sources, one that creates a future where our children enjoy an even higher quality of life than ours! However, to realize this future, we must assume responsibility and become part of the solution. Relatively small steps like eliminating bottled water, buying sustainable foods, and backyard composting, or more substantial commitments like installing solar panels on your home repeated hundreds of thousands and soon millions of times by concerned consumers will start this process. Don’t wait for your utility company or grocer to change their ways – you can help get this green ball rolling in the right direction right now!
Contact Derek at [email protected]