Seeking New Energy Sources

Posted on 17 July 2008

By Karl Grossman

“Using renewable energy sources has always made sense and with gas over $4 a gallon it makes more sense than ever. The technologies are ready. What we need is the political will and change in personal lifestyle,” Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, was saying last week.

Mr. Raacke walks the talk. On the roof of his house in East Hampton are solar photovoltaic panels that provide all the electricity needed. His monthly electric bill averages $6.

The cost of a similar 3 kilowatt system you can put on your house is $24,000, but with a LIPA rebate and federal and state tax credits, that’s cut to $7,000. So for $7,000, you could have a roof-top solar photovoltaic system that will reduce your electric bill to basically nothing. Add a solar hot water heater, it’s even cheaper—and considering current fuel oil prices, all but a necessity.

 “Renewables Are Ready” was the title of a book written by two Union of Concerned Scientists staffers in 1995. They’re more than ready now

But U.S. energy policy has been steered for decades by oil, nuclear and coal interests. Many government leaders are either manipulated or unaware of the renewable energy windfall at hand. Presidential candidate John McCain, with an energy platform consisting of more oil drilling and more nuclear power, is a prime example. But this is not necessarily a partisan issue. I wrote last week about breakthrough technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory called “hot dry rock geothermal” through which the hot rock a few miles below the earth’s surface is utilized to turn a turbine and generate electricity or provide heat, and how a transfer of a model HDR facility to industry was cancelled. That was by the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton.

During the oil crisis of the 70s, President Jimmy Carter set up what’s now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Part of a DOE, 1,000-employee NREL in Golden, Colorado is a beacon for a sustainable, independent energy future.

Consider the use of solar power to break down water and generate hydrogen—widely seen as the best fuel for locomotion and more. With the “right kind of systems,” Dr. John Turner, NREL senior scientist, was explaining to me, “you can use sunlight to split water.” He flipped a switch and hydrogen was generated in a process called photoelectrolysis. “What we have here now is sunlight to hydrogen—basically an inexhaustible fuel,” he said. “Hydrogen can be used in automobiles in fuel cells, to power our homes, to power our cars, to power our society.”

“It’s the forever fuel,” said Dr. Turner.

He spoke of “the vision of a non-polluting energy society that uses our two most abundant natural resources—sunlight and water—to give us an energy supply that is inexhaustible and non-polluting.”

That was one of the amazing energy technologies at NREL. Another is “thin film photovoltaic”—a technology developed by NREL with industry. Flexible membranes are impregnated with high-efficiency solar collectors and can be applied over buildings. The structures that constitute the skylines of Manhattan or Chicago, or buildings here on Long Island, could serve as electricity generators. This is now being widely used in Europe.

There’s the new wind turbines designed at NREL and other breakthroughs. Take a tour of NREL, you’ll be amazed. Last month, NREL unveiled a Toyota Prius it modified to run at 100 miles per gallon. A month before it presented a blueprint for the U.S. to get 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. “First of all it is doable, second of all it’s desirable,” said Dan Arvizu, NREL’s director. But NREL is a small part of DOE.

Over the weekend there was the Sag Harbor Energy Fair that included area cutting-edge energy entities. Long Island solar pioneer Garry Minnick, president of Go Solar!, was there with his mobile “solar education center” and optimism: “We’re seeing change,” he said.

Inside the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum was its summer exhibit, “Oil: Whales, Wells…What’s Next?”, featuring the words of Thomas Edison: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”  It’s not too late. But needed is widescale implementation of the abundant clean, safe, sustainable energy technologies.

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