SNUG AND SMUG WITH SOLAR POWER: Keeping On The Sunny Side of the Storms

Commentary by Chris Bolgiano

So hate me. All around, millions of people are losing electric power as trees and other inappropriate objects crash down on power lines. It doesn’t matter anymore what storm it is. At least three recent storms of apocalyptic dimensions have slammed into the East Coast, and more record-breaking ferocity is being predicted. Traffic lights don’t work. Stores can’t process credit/debit cards. Gas stations can’t pump gas. Roads are blocked and relief supplies can’t get through. Favorite TV reality shows go unwatched as the real world intrudes.

But we don’t miss a show, the husband and I, although in actual fact we usually watch old movies on DVDs as storms thump outside. During the searing heat after last June’s notorious wind that caused power outages for weeks, we sat in the breeze of our little fan. During the various winter blizzards that loaded lines with snow and ice, we sat in the warmth of our gas furnace. Not even Superstorm Sandy turned off our television.

Instead, time after time, for a few hours to several days as the entire region was paralyzed, the husband and I went about our business mostly — an important caveat — as usual. Powered by 17 grid-connected solar panels on the roof and eight sealed lead-acid batteries in the basement that instantaneously take over when the grid goes down, we watched news, listened to radio, took a quick shower and read in bed, to the hum of the refrigerator/freezer.

Solar panel costs have plunged 80 percent in the last five years. The cost of installing and connecting photovoltaic panels has dropped roughly 30 percent since 1998, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. A 30 percent federal tax credit applies until 2016, and some states offer additional incentives.

When Walmart goes solar, you know it’s cheap: The world’s biggest box store now boasts the country’s biggest business capacity at 65,000 kilowatts, with Costco second and Kohl’s Department Stores third. Maybe such stores can serve as emergency shelters in future storms, using solar electricity to provide drinking water, food and ways to cook it, sanitary disposal of wastes, shelter against extremes of weather, and lots of toys to keep dangerous boredom at bay. They could provide a form of community security unique to our consumerist era.

But I prefer a less centralized approach suited to the American spirit of independence. Thousands of panels in suburbs and exurbs, neighborhoods and communities, on urban condos and office buildings, farms and businesses, schools and hospitals, retirement homes, community centers, gas stations and quick stops, would make our communities resilient in the face of disaster.

Producing one’s own power is true independence, but all power has its limits. The limit of solar power lies in batteries, which are expensive, large and heavy. Designing a solar system to sustain a household when the grid goes down is a lesson in needs versus wants. These become clarified when, for example, one is thirsty in a flood, or hungry with a refrigerator full of decaying food.

So, what does one give up to have basic needs met for a reasonable price during the Duration? Running a heat pump or central air conditioning. Cooking on an electric stove. Bubbling in a hot tub. Any appliance requiring 240 volts rather than the usual 120 may draw more electricity than is practical to supply.

But one can design a system that will run a water pump, a gas– or oil-burning furnace, refrigerator, lights, radio, computers and television. One can recharge cell phones and iPods. Not necessarily all at once, but if one times one’s activities in rhythm with the sun and allows the batteries to recharge, one cannot only survive but gloat over one’s foresight.

Batteries can also be recharged by a gasoline generator if stormy weather persists or night drags on. This uses far less gasoline than a generator running the house directly. A gas-powered grill can cook meals. A kerosene heater can keep occupants from freezing. Multiple backup systems spread out a safety net.

One lesson to be learned from recent storms is that buildings should be built better and in better places. Buildings use nearly 70 percent of the electricity generated in this country. Solar panels offer a practicable step toward more sustainable communities with buildings that make, use and keep some of their own power.

Granted, we’re lucky that hurricanes and tornadoes haven’t ripped off our roof. That could still happen, and would put us back to the old standbys of bottled water, canned sardines and the kindness of strangers. In solidarity with those reduced to such a plight, we light a candle as we watch the coverage of the latest storm on TV.

Chris Bolgiano has written or edited six books, several of which have won literary prizes. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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