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What’s Better Than A Benefit Concert?

December 13th, 2012 by Alison · 2 Comments · energy, global warming and climate change

I love that rock artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi raised money for victims of Hurricane Sandy in the benefit concert last night. house with solar panels on its pitched roof

What I’d love more, though, is for the victims, and all of us, to become more disaster-resilient. The U.S. poles and wires electricity system that broke apart in the Northeast like matchsticks last month is just as vulnerable now as it was then. 2012 was the hottest year in American history, and Sandy was the Northeast’s third major storm in 16 months. Extreme weather events are the new normal as global warming progresses.

Rock stars can’t do enough benefit concerts to take care of everybody hurt by hurricanes, prolonged droughts, tornados and wildfires.

What can we do to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather? Something we can all do is be prepared for a power outage, which I wrote about right after Hurricane Sandy. It is empowering, no pun intended, to have flashlights, candles and lots of extra batteries and candles on hand in case our power goes out. But being prepared for a power outage is only necessary. It’s not at all sufficient for our long-term safety.

Something that not all, but some of us can do, is procure renewable energy that does not depend on the poles and wires that left millions without electricity in the wake of Sandy. Solar power is the best example of a truly resilient energy source. My home is solar powered as of last May. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. co-authored an editorial that appeared in the New York Times today, advocating for better national energy policy that encourages solar installations.

Those who don’t have the option of installing rooftop solar panels include renters, condo owners and anyone without a roof in good repair. However, home solar power definitely isn’t just for rich people.  The cost has come down as much as 80% in the past five years. My home’s west-facing solar array of 4.3 kilowatts cost $5,900. Oregon’s energy tax credit means that that investment will come back to us within four years. In the meantime, our average monthly electricity bill is less than $10, i.e. the base rate to simply be connected to the grid. 

My home’s solar panels are producing, annually, a little more energy than we are using, i.e 4,300 kilowatt hours/year. And this is in Portland, Oregon, the butt of the nation’s jokes about rain and grey skies. I’ve learned that it doesn’t take bright sunlight to create solar energy; it just takes daylight. I’ve also been surprised to learn that hot sunlight actually makes solar panels less efficient at conducting energy. Temperate climates work just fine; Portland is halfway between the equator and the north pole. Germany, also in the temperate zone, has rooftop solar panels producing close to 50% of its nation’s energy use. 

My point is that there is no technology challenge here. Rather, turning to solar is a challenge of our will, including our collective political will, but also our personal wills. For example, investing in solar panels means my household has paid in advance for its electricity, not the typical household choice. Politically, Germany has actively supported solar as its primary energy source. The U.S. needs to follow suit. Besides providing resiliency in disasters, solar power produces none of the carbon emissions that cause global warming, unlike coal, the U.S.’s prime source of the electricity that flows through our outdated poles and wires.

In closing, I want to clarify that of course I believe in helping victims of natural disasters. My household donated online to the American Red Cross promptly in response to the call for aid after Hurricane Sandy. I’m just clear that aid in the wake of catastrophic weather is not enough. 2012 was the hottest year in American history, and Sandy was the Northeast’s third major storm in 16 months. Our planet is warming dangerously. We’ve got to become more resilient, energy-smart and solar-powered in response. 

(Note: the photo above is not of my home; our house is two stories plus, and I’m not up for climbing a twenty-foot ladder. Our array is smaller than the one pictured.)

Coming up soon: my pet-owning friends provide a passionate discussion on how animals impact their quality of life.  

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