A ray of hope for renewable energy lights the Helderbergs

The sun shines on all of us — even if it’s sporadic in the northeastern United States where we live. That means solar energy is there to be harnessed. Unlike coal and oil, on which we have become so dependent, solar energy is safe — it doesn’t emit the greenhouse gases that have caused global warming. And we don’t have to go to war or destroy whole mountains to get it.

The concept has been around for well over a century. Frank Shuman in 1897 demonstrated a steam engine that operated continuously for over two years next to a pond at his house. This was in Philadelphia — a city of many firsts — with weather not much different than our own; Shuman estimated the sun shone 23 percent of the time in Philadelphia. In 1908, he formed the Sun Power Company to build a power plant and he developed a turbine that processed energy four times faster than any in his day. He went on to Egypt to build the first solar thermal power station on Earth.

When a New York Times reporter asked Shuman in 1916, “What will your sun power plant do when there is no sun?” he answered, “We can store it in an already well tried and simple manner.”

Technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last century and what was true in the tropics for Shuman is now true the world over. “We have proved the commercial profit of sun power in the tropics,” he told The Times, “and have more particularly proved that after our stores of oil and coal are exhausted the human race can receive unlimited power from the rays of the sun.”

Although Shuman went on to say he was the only inventor ever asked to explain his invention to the parliament of a great nation, our lawmakers, as is so often the case, have not kept up with the scientists or inventors.

Three kinds of solar technologies can now be successfully used to harvest the energy of the sun — photovoltaic, where cells convert sunlight into electricity; thermal, similar to Shuman’s system where water is heated; and passive, where the sunlight directly heats or lights buildings, an age-old technique perfected through new materials.

With a lack of national leadership — the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in which other nations bound themselves to limits on greenhouse gases — we have asked many times in this space for individuals and institutions to use renewable energy sources when they can. We have praised the local towns — Guilderland and New Scotland among them — and schools — including Berne-Knox-Westerlo and Guilderland — that have embraced this technology.

We’ve also commended our state for the tax credits and sales-tax exemptions that it has offered, and we’ve urged localities to adopt tax exemptions allowed by the state for solar installations.

But more is needed.

We’re intrigued and excited by a Hilltown initiative broached by Albany County Legislator Deborah Busch to try to develop a Hilltown solar source of energy that residents could tap into.

There are towns in other parts of the world — Feldheim, Germany has been held up as a model — that have done this successfully. Residents of tiny, rural Feldheim now pay 31 percent less for electricity and 10 percent less for heating than they did before the municipality owned and ran its own renewable wind and solar energy farms, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

A group of Hilltown residents, Helderberg Community Energy, several years ago put up a tower to see if wind power would be feasible for the Hilltowns and determined it wasn’t cost effective. Some of those same people are now looking to solar.

The problem with the new idea — for a municipal solar farm — is that state law would have to be changed to allow it. We were encouraged with the state’s top court decision last month that home rule should prevail for towns that had passed laws forbidding hydraulic fracturing. And we well remember another case, brought by Knox more than two decades ago, that also went to the Court of Appeals.

In that case, too, the top court ruled that the town could have standards on effluent that are higher than that allowed by state law.

Both of these cases, of course, are matters of health and safety. But so, too, are the greenhouse gases that are slowly killing us and our entire planet.

We wrote at length two years ago about the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s 600-page report, based on three years of scientific research, showing the dire effect of climate change on our health and safety. There are costs in human suffering that go beyond the calculations made by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which determined that exposure from coal-fired power costs Americans between $110 billion and $270 billion a year.

The ClimAID report noted what we have all observed: Some extreme weather has already increased in frequency and intensity, affecting aspects of society, the economy, and natural ecosystems — and increases are expected. Heat waves and heavy downpours will increase, and coastal flooding will put lives and property at risk. Billions of dollars in damage has already been caused and much more is expected. And, as ecosystems change with the warmer temperatures, we are ruining natural order.

We urge our state legislators to make the needed changes to the law so that places like the Hilltowns can launch their own solar projects for their citizens.

Failing that, we urge municipalities to use the home-rule power that is so important in New York or, better yet, work in consortiums for regional planning. This can include initiatives like limiting sprawl for walkable clustered communities, preserving ecosystems as well as renewable energy consortiums like the one being explored in the Hilltowns.

Renewable energy is the best way to reduce carbon emissions. And we don’t have to wait for the oil and coal to be exhausted as Frank Shuman advised a century ago. Nor do we have to use dangerous new methods to extract gas. The sun is free and natural. The technology exists to harness it. Let’s use it now before it’s too late.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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