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Sun, wind offer jobs, new energy options

Can you visualize local parking lots with solar powered stations for recharging your plug-in hybrid vehicle? Could you visualize owning a renewable energy home that produces more power than it uses? These dreams are possible, but there is a need to act soon if we want to join the energy revolution that is repowering much of the world.

Although a few energy sources have been with us forever, there are many with potential for use in America. Some of these could have a future in Southwest Virginia. Certainly coal has been important for Virginia and will continue for the immediate future. Oil is here to stay for some time too, but due to increasing costs and dwindling reserves it may have a more limited duration. Natural gas has enormous potential as a heating fuel and may become the fuel of choice for transportation. Propane gas is needed, especially in rural areas, for heating fuel, some transportation and recreational uses. Not to be ruled out is nuclear power, a reliable energy source with its successes in France and other countries.

In the main these are non-renewable sources of energy and they have served us well.

Let us look at some of the renewable sources of energy and explore those that appear to have more promise in Virginia. Wave and tidal energy can be developed along the coastal regions. In Hawaii scientists have discovered a way to pass warm seawater through a partial vacuum and create low temperature steam to generate electricity. Fuel cells and hydrogen gas are other high tech energy sources which scientists are giving a lot of attention. Ethanol and biodiesel are transportation fuels that can be helpful, but may have limited use unless we concentrate on production from non-food crops, such as switchgrass and algae.

Americans depend on electricity to make their lives easier and currently about 50 percent of our electricity is generated from coal, a fuel that presents problems. Fortunately there are replacement sources available. Geothermal, heat from volcanic rock, is one with potential to produce a lot of electricity over much of the country, but the technology needs more development.

Two sources of electricity fully developed and ready to serve us are the wind and the sun. Current technology guarantees satisfactory results for those properly using wind and solar.

Wind power in Virginia should be productive along the coast and along the western, high mountain ridges, but most of the commonwealth is not blessed with enough fast moving air. However, where the wind is strong, it is one of the most economical producers of electricity.

In Southwest Virginia the case for solar electricity is a lot better. Every state in the U.S. receives adequate sunshine to harvest enough energy to electrify homes. According to Seth Masia, in the 2009 Fall and winter issue of Solar Today, “Enough sun falls on your house to provide all your energy needs, at least for part of the year – if it’s sunny enough to grow crops, it’s sunny enough to make power.” Germany has more clouds than Virginia yet the Germans require solar of new homes. It might be interesting to know that recently the Hawaiian legislature voted to require solar on most new homes. Also, we should remember that 96 percent of all energy comes from the sun. The energy in fossil fuels, also came from the sun; it just happened millions of years ago.

The two main ways sun power is used in homes is solar water heating and solar electric, technically known as photovoltaic. Photovoltaic, PV for short, produces electric when sunlight strikes silicon cells. Manufacturing PV modules is very technical but construction occurs in many countries including America. Solar electricity can be stored in batteries or wired directly into the power company’s grid by a process called net metering.

Because of its simplicity solar water heating is more likely to be cost effective than PV. About 25 percent of a home’s energy goes into water heating and the solar equipment for this purpose is not hard to manufacture. Flatplate collectors are the devices that capture the sunlight and heat the water. Although commercial systems are more efficient there are “do it yourself” systems that perform quite well.

Regardless of the fuel or energy source used, satisfactory economics will not be possible unless good conservation is practiced. When plenty of insulation and good windows are installed, we are conservation minded and being energy efficient. Solar energy, perhaps our prime source of renewable energy, is particularly dependent on energy efficiency. If a lot of solar is used there will be an increased need for insulation. Solar water heating requires a lot of plumbing materials, not to mention the manufacture of flatplate collectors and water tanks. Solar electric requires the manufacture of silicon cells and assembly of the PV modules.

Can you see where this is leading? All these things are made in America and could be made locally. Local folks need work and solar equipment is proven effective without pollution.

As published in the July-August 2009 issue of Solar Today, author Brad Collins uses a landmark study to make the point that 8.5 million Americans are employed in the renewable energy/energy efficiency industry. If we act quickly and move these plans forward there could be as many as 40 million workers in these fields.

Learn more about how these changes can add millions of jobs and be revenue neutral by going to http://www.ases.org/climatejobs