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Friday, Sep 4, 2009, 8:49 am

Weekly Mulch: Solar Power Flares Up

By Raquel Brown
For a long time, only the economic elite could afford the hefty cost of solar energy. But in recent years, creative and affordable solar power technologies have been developed, creating a truly viable fossil fuel alternative.

Arla Shephard of High Country News reports that timber companies in Washington’s Kittitas County are looking to renewable energy to keep their companies out of debt. American Forest Land Company is planning to create the largest solar power plant in the Northwest. The Teanaway Solar Reserve would use 400,000 photovoltaic panels and produce 76 megawatts. That's enough energy to power 45,000 homes.

There are economic benefits as well. “In economically depressed Kittitas County (where the unemployment rate hovers at 8.1 percent), Teanaway’s project will mean a couple hundred temporary construction jobs and around 35 permanent jobs at the power plant, and potentially hundreds more long-term jobs at the manufacturing plant,” says Shephard.

Similar plans are also underway in New Mexico. Matthew Reichbach of the New Mexico Independent notes that a solar plant will be built in the Elephant Butte area and will hopefully bring clean energy and jobs to the community, while also saving water.

What if we replaced paved asphalt surfaces with solar panels? Solar Road Panels are an avant-garde clean-energy idea that could provide three times the electricity the U.S. consumes without emitting any carbon. Grist’s David Roberts explains that the Solar Road Panels would also contain LED lighting to help communicate with drivers, heating units to prevent icing and other weather conditions, electric vehicle recharging stations and high-voltage power transmission lines. The Department of Transportation has warmed up to the idea, and given Solar Roadways a $100,000 contract to build a prototype. According to the Solar Roadways website,
The Solar Road Panels will contain embedded LEDs which “paint” the road lines from beneath to provide safer nighttime driving, as well as to give up to the minute instructions (via the road) to drivers (i.e.) 'detour ahead'). The road will be able to sense wildlife on the road and can warn drivers to 'slow down.' There will also be embedded heating elements in the surface to prevent snow and ice buildup, providing for safer winter driving. This feature packed system will become an intelligent highway that will double as a secure, intelligent, decentralized, self-healing power grid which will enable a gradual weaning from fossil fuels.”

While there are many costs to solarizing the roads, Roberts points out that the cost of manufacturing Solar Road Panels matches our current costs to maintain power plants, asphalt roads and grid infrastructure.

Going solar is becoming less expensive and more convenient. Forget the traditional, bulky, hard-to-install panels made out of crystalline silicon. Instead, solar energy companies have developed thin-film technology to create photovoltaic (PV) cells. The process, which uses non-silicon alternatives like copper, selenium, indium and gallium, has been compared to how the Federal Reserve prints money. Scott Thill of Alternet notes that this new solar technology will revolutionize the clean energy market and can be used on everything from a house to a car.

Finally, this past Sunday, Grind for the Green hosted the second annual solar-powered hip-hop show in San Francisco. Kristia Castrillo of WireTap Magazine explains that while the event is highly innovative, “We cannot meekly nod our heads to the folks who are already doing this work.” Solar power is just one part of the equation. We must continue to develop a relevant dialogue, explore new ideas and work to engage the public in creating a sustainable environment.

“In truth, the task of sustaining human life on this planet does not rely on our physical strength or the numbers in our bank balance, rather it depends on our ability to step out of our comfort zone,” says Castrillo.

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