Growing a sustainable energy future

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116543467630421.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘San Diego School roof.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11654347921866.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Solar integrated roof. ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-1165434743880.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sonia Vogl’, ‘PV/Thermal roof system by Solar Wall (a branch of Conserval Engineering).’);

As global energy supplies dwindle and prices rise, increased competition for resources increases the likelihood of armed conflicts. The need to address climate change increases the importance of efficiency and renewable energy.

Much more is happening with renewable energy in Illinois than when we started writing about the topic five years ago. Support from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, ComEd, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and The Rock River Times has helped nurture an energy transition.

Ethanol and biodiesel plants, methane digesters and wind farms are large, highly visible and well publicized. Individuals and small businesses are engaged in smaller, often overlooked projects that enhance personal and community energy security. These include energy-efficient homes, ground source heat pumps, outdoor wood furnaces, corn and wood pellet stoves, solar electric systems, small wind generators, solar hot water systems, water-pumping windmills and an increasing number of organic farms. Hybrid electric cars are no longer a novelty item.

Solar electric projects are gaining in size and scope. A 50 kW system in Sublette is the largest one in this area. However, some substantially larger systems are appearing in other parts of the world. Germany’s largest solar electric installation is 12 megawatts—about 240 times as large as the Sublette installation. A new solar park in Spain will feature a 23 MW system. China recently announced plans to install a 100 MW system only to be outdone by an Australian project of 154 MW. In this case, size does matter as it provides the opportunity to capture economies of scale, which help reduce overall costs.

The current cost of a 2 kW household system in Illinois is around $8 per watt. With state rebates and federal tax credits, costs are reduced by 50 percent.

California’s program to have 3,000 MW of solar electricity by 2016 should also help lower costs. Solar electric systems built into rubberized roofing demonstrate the benefits of integrating solar electricity into buildings with large flat roofs, such as schools, box stores, factories and warehouses. In San Diego, 25 schools already have solar electric roofs. As the price of electricity increases in Illinois, such systems are likely to begin appearing here.

Other exciting ideas are emerging as well. Conserval Engineering Inc. has a new solar product that generates both electricity and heat. The top of the unit converts solar energy into electricity, while a larger thermal panel below captures heat for building use.

These projects fit well with the concept of developing a sustainable energy future. As fossil fuels and uranium deposits are depleted, Dr. Ulf Bossel of Switzerland claims that only hydro, solar, wind, ocean and geothermal installations can harvest renewable energy in a sustainable way. With the addition of managed biomass and organic wastes, he believes mankind’s energy needs can be met sustainably.

Dr. Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Parliament instrumental in designing their renewable energy policies, is a solar advocate. He is concerned about fossil fuel depletion and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use. Scheer advocates shortening the energy chains characteristic of our energy system. A 100-car train moving coal from Wyoming to Illinois for use at power plants is one example. Shipping liquefied natural gas nearly 9,000 miles from Qatar to Mexico is another. In contrast, the energy chain from a solar panel on the roof of a building to the point of use only involves traveling a few feet.

Whether a renewable energy economy of sufficient scope will emerge in a timely manner to power a modern society is open to debate. With the seriousness of the global energy situation, it is crucial to continue implementing sustainable solutions.

From the Dec. 6 – Dec. 12, 2006, issue

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