From Photosynthesis to Photovoltaics

life-of-solarIt’s rare to pick up a newspaper and not find at least one headline about solar and wind power, electric cars and battery development. Renewable power is here, and here to stay.

Not that it’s ever gone away. As a farmer, I’ve lived off of photosynthesis for the past 40 years, and of course sun-powered storms have brought the rain and snow that allow plants to tap into the nutrients in the soil. And fossil fuels, though not renewable, being compressed organic matter from eons past, began as plants and creatures ultimately powered by the sun. Sailing ships have been with us for millennia, windmills for hundreds of years. What’s historically new are silicon-based photovoltaic cells that can convert sunlight into electricity, though harvesting sunlight for electricity seems a natural extension of using it to grow crops.

In the small community in which I live, the Embudo Valley of Northern New Mexico, a half dozen or more residents have installed rooftop photovoltaic systems. There are at least four electric cars in the area, one of them home-built. The Embudo Valley Library and the Dixon Co-op are about to build a solar shade structure cum bandstand that will significantly cut the Co-op’s electric bills. The village even hosts is own solar company, Mark Johnson’s SolLuna Solar, which has built solar systems all over Northern New Mexico, including the 7KW system that powers my house and farm and recharges my Chevy Volt.

Going solar is the quickest way to reduce one’s carbon footprint and, by extension, reduce the enormous economic power of the fossil fuel industry. And given the drop in the cost of PV panels and generous tax credits for all types of renewable systems, including the purchase of new hybrid and electric cars, I will venture to suggest that anyone paying income tax at this point would be foolish not to take advantage of the present situation. Waiting for prices to drop further or waiting for the next technological breakthrough just helps the fossil fuel companies stay in business that much longer and of course does nothing to reduce the causes of global warming. “If not now, when?”

There are other economic benefits of rooftop solar. Local companies, and there are perhaps a dozen in operation in Northern New Mexico now, provide construction jobs for local people, jobs that pay better than what gas station clerks earn, for example. These jobs increase the economic multiplier effect—the number of times a dollar circulates in a community before it sails off to distant suppliers—thereby benefiting all local businesses. When the Dixon Co-op halves the amount it pays for electricity, it will improve its bottom line significantly and the Co-op will more easily be able to keep prices affordable and upgrade its facilities and offer better financial security to its dedicated employees. And of course it will be significantly reducing its carbon footprint.

Change requires change. My mental radar now knows the location of four 240 volt charging stations for my Chevy Volt in Santa Fe, four hours for a full charge, which gives me 40 miles on the battery before the gas generator kicks in, and one 120 volt station, which gives me a boost of 10 miles in a couple of hours. Most recently, I was able to recharge the car in the underground parking garage in the Railyard while watching a movie at the new Violet Crown Theater—all free, as Violet Crown validated my parking ticket. Plugging the car in every night in the garage is not a chore, though remembering to take the cord needed for 120 volt charge stations (240 volt stations have their own cord) sometimes feels like one, especially in cold and wet weather, though cordless charging stations may eventually become the norm. Gas stations will feel the effect of cars that need no gas or, like mine, need it only every 700 to 1,000 miles. The shift to
more fuel efficient vehicles is already detectable in declining gasoline taxes. Electric utilities are seeking a surcharge from rooftop solar owners who use the grid as their battery, seeing a threat to their conventional business model that calls for endless and often mindless expansion. Household batteries recently announced by Tesla could eventually cut out the electric utilities altogether for many users.

But change we must, if we are to have any hope of saving the planet from our present and past excesses. What is encouraging, perhaps faintly, is that so much is happening in renewable energy despite little support from the government, aside from tax credits. Imagine how fast we could move if Congress got behind this effort with a Renewable Manhattan Project.

Until that happens, it’s up to us as individuals and as small groups to keep the ball rolling.

by Stan Crawford
Stanley Crawford has been farming with his wife RoseMary in the Embudo Valley since the 1970s. His most recent novels are “The Canyon” (UNM Press) and “Seed”(FC2/University of Alabama Press).


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