EDITORIAL: Whose power is it, anyway

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, with my encouragement, a neighbor cut down three tall locust trees in his front yard. My two nearby apple trees are still in shock. I’m no farmer but it looks to me like my trees haven’t adjusted to all the sunlight that comes their way now that the locusts no longer shade them.

If the new trees my neighbor has planted grow as planned, shade will return to the property line someday. For now the apple trees do what they can to adapt to a warmer habitat. Some humans are doing something similar.

It’s reassuring to see solar panels attached to rooftops or freestanding in yards and fields around the county. The Taconic Hills Central School District has a big solar garden–or small solar farm–across Route 23 from the school campus. Businesses have adopted solar power too. The panels at The Chatham Berry Farm are, not surprisingly, near its greenhouses.

Some places have problems, like too much foliage, an aging roof or an owner who doesn’t have or won’t spend the money, that makes solar panels for generating electricity impractical. You can look at people in that situation either as folks who lose out on the benefit of using renewable solar to reduce their electric bills or as freeloaders, who get cleaner air and progress toward slowing the warm-up of our atmosphere without participating in this practical way to achieve these goals.

Let’s assume that most of us solar power delinquents would like do our part. That’s where community solar comes in. For example, a 214-kilowatt solar farm covering about a single acre could produce enough electricity to offset the electricity bills for as many as 40 homes for the next quarter century. The homeowners (or small businesses) purchase panels in the community solar array and get credit from the electric utility that supplies homes with power. The panels go in a field, not on your roof and, with enough panels, you get an electric bill of $20 month for the service fee.

Too good to be true? Ask residents of the Town of Clermont, where the first community solar facility in the county officially opened December 20. They’re taking a chance; only a couple of dozen community solar systems currently operate around the state. But maybe the better question to ask is: What’s the alternative? Build more power plants and high voltage lines?

One of the best things about solar panels is how temporary they are. They last for a few decades and then have to be replaced or removed. The land isn’t be permanently scarred or poisoned. Usually….

The photo-voltaic (pv) cells that make up solar panels are not magic. Most of the risks have been in the manufacturing process, and while there’s none of that in this county, it’s reasonable for individuals and communities to ask if pollutants are in these pollution-fighting panels. Some materials in older pv cells in particular do contain hazardous materials and have to be disposed of carefully. The technology has improved and current standards are higher, but there’s no use pretending: even solar power can have drawbacks if not handled properly.

Solar panels need to be cleaned too. Blame the crud in the air from carbon pollution sources like the combustion fossil fuels. The dirtier the solar panel surface, the less power the array produces. Where will the water to clean them come from? Where will the dirty water go? We can’t ignore such questions if we hope to gain the maximum benefit from this technology.

But none of these potential drawbacks changes the fact that increasing our reliance on solar power helps us reduce carbon pollution and move us toward a more sustainable society.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Clermont community solar project is its scale. One acre for up to 40 participants. Do the math. There are roughly 25,000 households in Columbia County. That means it would take just 625 acres of solar farms to replace the amount of domestic electricity used in the county with local solar power.

That’s not going to happen, at least not right away. But surely every one of the 18 towns in the county can find a few acres that could be specifically zoned as appropriate for community solar facilities. The key concept here is not “solar,” it’s “community.” It will take community action to address the damage already done, improve our chances of survival and save some in the process.

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