and to your deep and restless seas.
from My Light
written and illustrated by Molly Bang
Blue Sky Press, 2004
During the Fall of 2017, my husband and I visited several National Parks. It was a trip to remember in so many ways, but an image that has stuck in my mind all this time was one I saw during my turn behind the wheel. My husband was stretched out in the passenger seat, probably dreaming of the cottonwood trees that seemed lit from within. Or maybe the magical-looking waterfall in Zion National Park. He could have been dreaming about the delicious dinner at Jay’s Pizza in Moab, though.
Out the lower left corner of the windshield grew something massive, blackish, lake-like. Long minutes passed. It kept getting bigger. I didn’t remember a large lake from my elementary-school geography class. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I got closer. It wasn’t a lake. It wasn’t even water. I didn’t know what it was until it metamorphed into a solar farm. I thought it covered a square mile.
I have seen solar panels on houses. I have even seen smallish solar farms. A large portion of the parking lot at the old GM facility in Lordstown, Ohio, just a short drive from my house, is a solar farm now. The largest solar farms cover thousands of acres and sport over a million solar panels. They’re located all over the world, China, Japan, India and right here in the United States.
Power companies and regular people are becoming more interested in renewable energy for lots of reasons. And it’s becoming more affordable. According to an item I heard on “Here and Now” last week (5/29/2020), Americans are consuming more renewable energy than coal for the first time since 1885, when most people burned wood. https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/05/29/renewable-energy-increase In fact, in 2018, “China built a massive floating solar farm on top of an abandoned coal mine.” You can see a picture of it here: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-floating-solar-farm-coal-mine-renewable-energy-2018-1
Coal is bad for the earth, digging it out and burning it. It’s bad for our health, for those who dig for it, and those who use it for heat. It’s bad for the environment. Our trees can’t inhale enough carbon dioxide. Our earth is out of balance. It just doesn’t make sense to invest in coal production.
Here’s a factoid from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the Department of Energy. More energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year. https://www.nrel.gov/research/re-solar.html And solar energy systems do not produce air pollution or carbon dioxide.
So my husband and I decided to go solar. Our array should be up and running by the end of July. Twenty-two solar panels will be affixed to the south-facing slope of our garage roof in two rows of eleven panels each. They will generate almost all the electricity we need for lights, washing clothes, cooking dinner, baking cookies, refrigeration, reading in bed, and charging our phones, and charging our car. We’ll have room for another row of eleven panels if we want to add them later.
Of course, I wanted to know a little about how it all works. Solar cells, sometimes called solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, convert the sun’s energy into electricity. The cells are arranged in panels and several panels make an array. The term photovoltaic actually describes the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage). That’s called the photovoltaic effect.
Most solar cells are made of silicon, the second most abundant element (next to oxygen) on earth. PVs are used on everything from little plastic pigs and turkeys that flap their wings when the sun hits the little black patch on their backs, to calculators and satellites.
When light strikes a PV cell, some of it is absorbed into the silicon. The energy of the absorbed light knocks loose some electrons in the silicon and allows them to flow freely. Electric fields in the cell force the electrons to flow in only one direction, creating current. Metal contacts on the top and bottom the PV cell draw off that current to power a calculator or a satellite or a little plastic pig with wings. You can find a much more thorough and very readable explanation at https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/solar-cell1.htm
Our new solar array will be tied into our existing electric wires and metered by our local electric company. The dial on the usage monitor will spin in two directions. If we use more electricity than we produce, it travels one way and we pay. If we generate more electricity than we use, the extra power goes into the grid and the power company pays us. Of course, they are looking at their bottom line, not ours. They will pay us a fraction of what they charge for their own production, but that’s the way economics works in the USA.
And for me, doing the right thing usually amounts to much more than adding and subtracting a bunch of numbers!
-—stay curious! (and take small steps)