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The Renewable Questions of Sustainability

August 8, 2011
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One of the side effects of writing about the history of the industry is that you start seeing its footprints in a lot of current topics. For instance, a subject of interest in all sectors of the industry is sustainable/renewable technologies and practices.

Those of us who have been around for a while, or who take an interest in our history, are probably thinking of that time in the 70s and early 80s when the sales of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were artificially boosted by tax incentives of the administration of Jimmy (“Dial Down Your Thermostat and Put On a Sweater”) Carter. PV panels started popping up on rooftops throughout suburbia, installed by companies that weren’t always the most reputable.

When the tax incentives and rebates went away, so did this fledgling market in most of North America.

Now, of course, the solar industry isn’t alone in its sustainable/renewable excellence. Geothermal systems have become entrenched in this market, and they are also supported by today’s government tax credits and utility rebates. These systems might have the upper hand in the market because they were already being marketed and installed in areas with good geothermal characteristics of soil composition and temperature, even without government incentives.

You can see some relative cautiousness with regards to solar systems. Indeed, a lot of this work today seems to come from large, industrial installations looking to influence large swatches of the electrical load, or at least the loads of large electricity users.


CANADA’S FRUIT BASKET

Living where I do in Michigan, I get the chance to drive over to Canada about as often as I’d like. Typically I go down to Point Pelee, the country’s southernmost tip, which juts down into Lake Erie. The drive itself goes through a lot of farm land on one side of the car, and past Lake Erie on the other.

I have seen a lot of changes over the past five years. It started with the giant windmills along the coast (not in the water), and the signs protesting them going into the water and “spoiling our view!” I guess I might be peeved too if I had saved for years for a lakeside vacation home and a big utility wanted to stick a windmill in the lake.

This year I saw something new on the farm side: large cement disks holding very large solar panels. There is just one per farm, identical from farm to farm, and presumably erected by the same local utility, which pays each landowner for having the utility’s property installed in the middle of their fields.

You might not think of southern Ontario as being a hotspot for renewable energy, but because of the tip’s geography, it gets a lot of sun and a lot of wind. That’s why all the farms are there. And now they are harvesting more than their standard crops of peaches and tomatoes.

There also were signs promoting geothermal installations — but of course you don’t see those once they’re completed. The area could probably also harvest the energy generated by Lake Erie’s waves, if that technology is able to be commercialized; the Great Lakes don’t have the same tidal influences that the oceans do, so it is possible — as long as it doesn’t affect the view of retirees and vacationers, and it can hold up to the stresses from winter weather.


SOLAR NOW

It could be that the solar market of the 70s and 80s has gotten us to the point where the market will hang on once the incentives are gone. I believe that the big solar players will be really big, like the Ontario utility harvesting sun in Leamington. They are taking as much advantage of the incentives as they can, for as long as they can. The wind power and solar structures will remain until the utility decides it’s no longer feasible to maintain them.

Meanwhile, the energy eggheads are still working toward net-zero structures. According to one definition, this has occurred if, between Jan. 1-Dec. 31, a building uses only as much energy as it harvests.

However, in addition to doing the right thing (the concept of which can change like any other fad), real people seem to care about the following:


• Will the company still be here to take care of my system?


• Will I be able to take care of my system?


• Will it affect the appearance and value of my home?


• Will it mess up my view?


What are your questions about the renewable/sustainable market? Contact me: barbarachecket-hanks@achrnews.com.



 

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