Sunday, December 14, 2014

Green vs. white

For reasons I can’t fathom (which means they’re probably economical and political), someone decided that Rutland was going to be the Solar Capital of Vermont and a leader in solar power in New England, the United States, and who knows, probably the world.

I can’t fathom this because our region, of which Rutland is center of commerce, has so little sun. I can’t find firm statistics to support this, but compared to other regions we have cloudy skies well more than half the time. My own fifteen years of trying to garden here move me to claim that we don’t have sun most of the time.

(Even my physician supports this. When I asked how much vitamin D I should take along with my calcium, she said there was no upper limit because Vermont just doesn’t have enough sun to worry about it.)

So. For the past two years, we’ve been seeing solar farms popping up all over. The nearest one fills an old farm field on my way into Rutland to shop. Whoever used to own that land, or still does and is leasing it, is probably making way more money than they ever did farming. Same goes for people with bony hills that are now home to cell towers.

These things are ugly, but I’d sure rather see them than housing developments. Which is the last I thought about it until today.

In the past six days, we spent three of them with no power, thanks to a winter storm that knocked down lines throughout the state. Some areas were so damaged that they’ve spent all six days without juice. The entire period has been sunless. We are forecast for partly sunny for a day and a half starting tomorrow, then the next weather system moves in for two–three days. A fairly normal pattern.

Which is why I was thinking about it today. As I drove to the supermarket, along miles of road lined with bowed-over trees so saturated with white that it looked like they’d been blasted by a snow gun, gleaming against gunmetal-gray sky, I passed the solar farm. The arrays all had their backs to me, so I couldn’t see whether they were snow-pasted as well, though I did see some dump piles at their feet which suggested that they had shed their load.

Point is, what power were they collecting? What power were they making? Acres of field with nothing to do. To the best of my knowledge, these are grid-tie systems, so there’s no huge battery bank storing the power they create on nice days to help us out on the bleak ones. I was looking at a giant field of dormant, expensive hardware.

What good is solar power when the grid infrastructure is broken? If we’d had to rely on solar to keep us going during the outage, well, we’d be very cold and would have lost a lot of food and had to poop in the woods, not to mention been unable to do the work that enables us to pay the power bills. The biggest blessing of our outage experience was that the village store had power so we could get fuel to keep our generator going until it nigh melted down. Good-old evil fossil fuel, the same stuff the store was using to keep their generators going.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d get a propane generator because that fuel is more reliable than ethanol-blended gasoline, and doesn’t destroy small engines. Still, it’s a fossil fuel. Looking ahead in time to a “green” future, what’s going to keep us going when the grid is down? Tell me solar, and I will laugh in your face.

One can argue that the millions invested in solar arrays might be better invested in putting the grid underground so we don’t suffer days or weeks of economic upheaval every time Nature throws us a curveball. But that would still leave the macro problem of global depletion of fossil fuel, so green alternatives must be pursued.

Too bad they’re not worth a damn for year-round, all-climate reliability!

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