By David Capps
You could read the Andes landscape, in these leafy summer months, as an essay in photosynthesis, the astounding natural process that transformed the early Earth’s climate into one hospitable to animal and human life. Over millennia photosynthesis has produced the deposits of fossil fuels that have made possible most of the amazing technologies that underlie modern society and culture. Scientists are, according to a number of articles and announcements that I found in a Google search, getting closer and closer to creating “artificial photosynthesis” that has the potential to radically reduce our dependence on these fossil fuels. However, we know they are finite in quantity and present massive issues of contaminations of many kinds to the natural environment that sustains us.
The beautiful countryside that we love also does an interesting job of hiding, with its hills, forests and unpredictable turns in the road, many of the engagements our community already has with alternative energy production. I set off in search of information, and for this and, perhaps, future articles, spoke with a few active and visionary members of the community about their projects, accomplishments and ideas: George Redden, life-long resident of the area, brilliant teacher and, for me, solar guru; Silvia Morales (and her husband, Gerard Palomba, in absentia), new neighbors hailing from Costa Rica and New Jersey, carving an amazing, daring home close to the crest of one of the highest peaks in the area; and James Tucker and Eric Zuend-Misner, electrician/architect/entrepreneurs who work in the Delhi/Andes area as professional solar designers and installers. And I personally have spent a number of years tinkering with my own off-the-grid power system.
In this highly unscientific, informal and anecdotal search for Andes alternative energy activities over the past few weeks, I found that:
there’s already a lot going on, and much of it can dispel some of the negative mythology around the potentials of solar energy
there are many levels of engagement, from highly professional to bushwhacking do-it-yourself projects
there’s potential for a great deal more, given progress in both technology and economics as well as long records of pioneers in the area
there’s a lack of collective awareness of what’s happening but also an interest in creating a stronger sense of community and collaboration around projects, information and support.
Myths / New Technology / New Potentials:
It’s easy to imagine that the Catskills, with their many cloudy days and long winters, would fall below a level of solar exposure effective for solar power production. In fact, however, according to James, New York State receives 75% of the usable sunlight that sunny southern California does, and that solar panels actually gain efficiency in our cold, clear winters. To add a certain perspective, Germany, at least 10 degrees latitude farther north and not a country famous for sunshine, set records this past summer by generating 50% of it’s weekend electrical power needs from solar power, approximately equal to the output of 20 nuclear power stations.. And if Wikipedia is right, green plants, at 3-6% photosynthetic efficiency, are far behind the latest photovoltaic panels that are rated at close to 20% efficiency.
George Redden advocates for tracker systems that move the panels toward the sun to achieve maximum gathering capacity (think like plants, again), but static pole or roof mounts, according to James Tucker, allow the largest numbers of panels to be installed and take advantage of the lowering prices and rising efficiencies of the latest panels. And I can vouch for the fact that PV panels can make power even on a cloudy day: on this very cloudy Tuesday, my system was gathering, at midday, about 50% of my maximum production, and kept my batteries at a reasonable charge for the day. The larger problem than hours of sunshine for our area is shade from either hills or trees. Winter can increase exposure when leaves fall, and it’s even possible to exploit reflection of the sun from the beautiful white snow cover, but there’s no getting around being in the shade of a hill. Open and level properties have an advantage – mine is on a hillside close to the bottom of a valley and my panels don’t start working until 10:30 am on average. Though Silvia and Gerry are currently working with a small wind turbine that is perfect for their cliffside location, they may consider the wide vista (some trees would have to be removed) of their location, an ideal solar exposure.
For those of us who have built our own systems (George: extensive solar electric, solar water heating; Silvia: small-scale wind turbine; myself: small-scale solar electric), all of which are “off the grid,” ongoing monitoring and tinkering are necessary. I have to say, personally, that there is some ongoing satisfaction in being constantly attentive to the production and use of the energy (we’ve contemplated having teenagers produce their own power to run all their many devices). However, the “plug and play” nature of our culture does place heavy demands if you’re making your own power.
The “grid intertie” systems allow homes and businesses to generate power, feed it into traditional utility systems, thereby “running the meter backward,” and still enjoy the familiar constancy and reliability (except for blackouts!) of the existing power supply. When feasible, this kind of system may continue to be the most popular, especially since most incentive benefits require intertie. However, even though battery storage continues to be the weakest technological link, James says that the number of off-grid installations is close to half of his business this year, and is part of both new construction and renovation work.
The evidence is that Andes, Delaware County and the Catskills can – and should – look forward to a future fully invested in solar and other renewable energy sources. We’ve relied on nature’s photosynthesis for a long time, isn’t it time for us to start paying back? ~