Thursday, April 23, 2009

Distributed solar power is the answer

As more large-scale solar power projects get past the planning stage and into permitting and building, unease among environmentalists grows.

Turns out, all that "barren desert land" out west may be barren, but it supports an ecosystem. Multitudes of living creatures - plants, snakes, worms, and two-, four-, six- and eight-legged critters - call it home. The people who hang their hats there like the barrenness just fine. The last thing they want is a 10,000-acre solar power plant casting a blight on the land.

Large solar power installations, especially concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, have three main environmental drawbacks.

One, solar power installations that cover thousands of acres spoil the habitats of several species of local flora and fauna.

Second, getting electricity from the plants to populated areas requires putting up transmission lines in pristine areas. Agreed, there isn't much to see in the desert, but it does have a kind of breathtaking beauty.

And third, solar power plants use massive amounts of water, an incredibly precious resource in the West. Westerners take water and its conservation extremely seriously.

Solar power plants use water to cool and wash their mirrors and panels. CSPs additionally need water to produce steam that drives turbines.

Put all these difficulties together, and you can see why utility-scale solar power plants are meeting with so much resistance. They're not something most people want in their backyards. An official from the Bureau of Land Management said there is "great sensitivity" within the agency to issues of plant siting.

I believe the future of solar energy lies with distributed power, where the source of electricity lies close to its consumption. We need a solar panel on every roof and a battery in every basement.

But that future is going to take a while to get here. Solar panels are expensive, inefficient and require experts to install. Battery technologies haven't yet evolved to the point where they can reliably and economically take over from the solar panels when the sun goes down.

Still, research into solar technology continues. The price disparity between solar and grid power keeps shrinking. Sooner or later (more likely later), every household will have the means to harness the light of the sun.

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