Solar power: it's about time

There's evidence that the Romans used coal in the 2nd century A.D. The Greeks, however, already had the jump on them when, in the 3rd century B.C., they defeated a Roman naval attack by burning the enemy ships' sails with solar heat reflected from mirrors.The U.S. Department of Energy website provides a brief history of coal, including the observation that its use was first promoted in England in the 1700's because it "burned cleaner and hotter than wood charcoal." The Industrial Revolution, of course, spawned the ascendance of fossil fuel, but here in the opening decades of the 21st century, human society is beginning to come to grips with the realization that fossil fuel is not very clean at all. Moreover, it releases carbon dioxide, and current estimates put our global carbon footprint at about 1,000 TONS of CO2 PER SECOND. Unless you're among the fast-dwindling numbers of climate change deniers, that's a sobering statistic. Yet solar power has its own history, beyond the Greeks' military success mentioned above. Leonardo da Vinci conceptualized its use in the early 16th century. The first solar collector was invented by a Swiss scientist in 1767. The first photovoltaic cell was invented by a French physicist while still a teenager in 1839. Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect in 1905, for which he later received a Nobel Prize. And Exxon--yes, Exxon--became involved in significant solar research in the late 1960's. Nowadays, solar energy applications are available for all kinds of uses, from charging your smart phone to providing electricity for your whole house. Advertisements for solar installations, whether by purchase or lease, are ubiquitous, with lots of offers trumpeting no money up front. Unfortunately it appears that solar electricity has not generated the same kind of enthusiasm in Downey as it has in other communities throughout California, especially southern California, where we've got about as much sunlight as anybody in the country. According to Go Solar California, a collaborative effort between the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, in its list of the top twenty California cities for residential solar, the City of Downey is nowhere to be found. Bakersfield is #1, followed by San Jose, San Diego, Fresno, Clovis, and San Francisco. So maybe Downey's not big enough, or perhaps its residents are not wealthy enough to afford solar. But the rest of the top twenty cities for residential solar are generally midsized towns not much bigger or smaller than Downey: for example, Murrieta at #9, Temecula #11, and El Cajon #13, all have populations in the 100,000 range. Or could it be that solar power is too expensive for Downey residents? The median income in Downey is about $60,000, roughly equal to the median income for the whole state. Yet ten of the top 20 residential solar cities in California have median incomes equal to or less than Downey's. El Cajon, Fresno, and Palm Springs are among the top twenty cities for solar, but all have median incomes less than $44,000 per year. Moreover, the Lancaster City Council (last in the top 20) has unanimously approved changes in its zoning code that will require developers to install solar in every new home to be built. So what's up, Downey? Why is there not more solar power in our fair town? Is everybody happy with that 18th-century technology and its attendant costs, not only financial, but physical and environmental? Or is it time to start looking at a 21st-century alternative? As I've mentioned previously in this column, my wife and I purchased whole-house solar four years ago in May, 2009. As this article goes to press, our solar has prevented over 20 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, and we've saved about $7200 in electricity costs. If all of Downey's 35,000-plus residential housing units had solar, that would amount to a four-year savings of 700,000 tons of CO2 and about $250 million dollars in electricity costs. Which raises the question: isn't it about time for solar?

********** Published: May 2, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 03