August 30, 2007

Power Up

By: by Jake Whitney, Long Island Press


The sun glided into Manhattan on a sparkling day, not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine illuminated not only the vessel's name, but also its significance: This Swiss-built catamaran, deriving all its power from the sun, had just completed the first motorized transatlantic crossing by a completely solar-powered boat.

"I want to shout to the world: Use solar power!" the boat's captain, Michel Thonney, told an international crowd of 100. He called his vessel's voyage "the ecological message of the century."

One week later, starting May 14, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit, hoping to rally the mayors of the world's biggest cities to help fight global warming (cities consume 75 percent of the world's energy and produce 80 percent of its greenhouse gases).

Bloomberg reiterated his recently announced plan to reduce the city's greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. To reach this goal, he said, the city would harness solar power as a key form of renewable energy-especially to generate buildings' electricity, which accounts for 70 percent of the city's carbon emissions.
Long Island has successfully increased solar energy use. Long Island Power Authority's Solar Pioneer Program offers rebates for solar electricity, or photovoltaics (PV) users, to combine with federal and state tax credits. The program celebrated its 1,000th solar roof installation on June 26, on a Hicksville residence.

In July, Nassau County became one of the charter counties (along with 11 others outside the state) to launch the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Declaration in conjunction with the Sierra Club, pledging to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Tom Maher, Nassau's director of environmental coordination, says that increasing solar energy use would be a key method in reaching this goal.

Maher adds that the county just passed a law requiring all new government buildings to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, which rates building "green-ness." He says that Nassau is also considering funding PV panels for Eisenhower Park's aquatic center.

Suffolk County recently contracted to install solar panels at Suffolk Police Headquarters in Yaphank. Carrie Meek Gallagher, Suffolk's commissioner for environment and energy, says a 40-watt installation is also planned for the new 4th Precinct building in Hauppauge. Meek says they expect to break ground this year.

The private sector also has big plans for increasing solar use statewide. In May, the massive Solar Initiative of New York (SINY) was launched by a group of academics, scientists and business leaders out of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the State University of New York at Albany.

"New York is well behind other parts of the world when it comes to using solar power," notes the college's Professor Pradeep Haldar, Ph.D., who spearheaded the initiative. Haldar points out that California generates 20 times the amount of solar-derived electricity that New York does, and that Germany, which has four times the population of New York but significantly less sunlight, generates 100 times the amount.

SINY's goal for the state is ambitious: to generate 2,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity using PV systems by 2017 (the state now generates just over 12 MW of grid-connected electricity). Haldar says that the goal is reachable because the price of PV equipment has dropped dramatically, efficiency has increased, and power needs continue rising.

As for needing power, New York City is expected to require 2,000 more MW of electricity in the next five years. While estimates put the potential for solar use between 6,000 MW and 15,000 MW (one estimate has solar accounting for 18 percent of peak load by 2022), the city currently generates a mere 1.1 MW from PV projects.

Using old thinking, meeting the demand would mean building three power plants. But one "green designer," Neil Chambers, asserts that in the next five years, New York will have the most green buildings in the nation, with solar panels generating a significant amount of electricity. While an architect with Jacob's Engineering, Chambers helped design Coney Island's Stillwell Avenue subway station; its solar panels generate 60 percent of its peak electricity load during the summer.

Some peg solar power as just another fad (as with the rush of excitement for solar in the 1970s-when oil prices skyrocketed-which died almost as soon as prices fell). But Chambers disagrees.

"We're now looking at a way, as we grow this industry, that in 10 years we will have a portfolio of products that are not just environmentally sound, but are fulfilling the promise. Is it a fad? Not if we can show that these projects are working the way they should be," says Chambers.