Commodities are on my mind, for some strange reason. Last week it was fuel — specifically natural gas. This week it’s another energy commodity that is shrinking daily before our very eyes, but will soon begin to replenish itself starting on Monday, December 22.
I’m thinking, of course, about the sun and solar energy. A week after writing about our friends in the lake region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where they are weighing the option of selling their marginal farmland to natural gas drillers for unheard of profits, I am now thinking about possible better ways. And as the sun grew scarcer with every passing day, it dawned on me (so to speak): Why not solar energy as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and simultaneously diminish our carbon footprint?
Long after those natural gas drillers in tiny towns in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of upstate New York have tapped the easy profits out of their wells and — we can only hope — cleaned up their wastewater pits and moved on, our source of solar power will still be there, cranking out energy nine-plus hours a day in the least productive times around the winter solstice and up to 15 hours or more in the most productive period in June.
Before I continue let me address two realities:
1.) Yes, I know that gas is now down to $1.50 a gallon, and that it could fall to under a buck a gallon, and that — no doubt — Hummers may once again line the lots of the auto malls. But the cause of this decline in oil prices, principally a world wide economic meltdown, is not exactly the long-term energy solution that anyone would want to bank on.
2.) Solar is expensive. Yes, I know. Google solar energy and you will find all sorts of installers of solar roof panels for your house. Drill down into their websites and you will find that it will cost something like $25,000 to $30,000 or more to outfit your house.
It’s so expensive that a company based in Silicon Valley, California, offers to buy the panels for you, lease them back to you, and profit from the fact that your new solar-enriched energy bill plus the cost of the lease will still be less than what your old fossil-fuel energy bill would have been.
And to maximize your return on solar, a website, roofray.com, has developed a “widget” that will allow you to use Google maps and images to calculate the solar efficiency of your house (or a house you are considering for purchase) based on its roof angles and positioning relative to the sun.
But, I begin to wonder, what if the day comes when solar panels are as thin and as cheap and as easy to install as roof shingles? What if — instead of rigid solar panels that are now mounted over the top of existing roofs — every building simply had energy-producing solar shingles on its roof? What if those shingles were as cheap as regular asphalt shingles? Then you wouldn’t need an Internet widget to tell you where you can install them, you would just install them anywhere the sun will eventually hit them.
That sounds like science fiction, I know, but then I looked over at the Sony television set I bought four or five years ago. Its screen measures 27 inches diagonally — a big deal for me at the time. But downstairs I now have another Sony TV — 40 inches diagonal. But even more impressive, the big screen only takes up four inches from front to back, one-fifth the space of the smaller TV.
So if in five years a television set can be reduced in thickness five times and roughly double in surface area, then what does the future hold for solar panels? Here in cloudy central New Jersey a pioneer company in the solar energy field, EPV Solar, is marketing a thin film solar panel that can turn windows, balconies, railings, and even guardrails into energy producers.
Who knows about the future, but we do know in the present that organic solar cells — made from photosensitive organic materials — already are being used as “solar shingles” and as energy producing roof coverings. A company in Lowell, Massachusetts, produces a solar film so thin and transparent that it can cover windows — your south-facing picture window can also pump current into the grid.
While organic solar fuel cells still lack the longevity of the more established crystalline solar panels and still lag in overall energy conversion efficiency, they hold enough promise that Princeton University has become an investor in one Ewing-based company, Global Photonic Energy.
In fact, in addition to EPV Solar and Global Photonic Energy, the U.S. 1 circulation area is home to nearly a dozen other solar-related companies:
Nanergy, RESI Renewable Energy Solutions, and WorldWater & Solar Technologies, all in Ewing; Jersey Solar in Lambertville; GeoSolar in Robbinsville; Princeton University’s PRISM (Princeton Institute for Science and Technology of Materials); PVML Photovoltaics on State Road; and PowerLight in Trenton.
One of the more clever holiday greetings I received this year was from Robin Nally, the Lawrenceville based advertising consultant, who sent out an intriguing triangular shaped package with a small but live evergreen tree in it. Since I like to buy live Christmas trees each year and then plant them in northeastern Pennsylvania (one of mine up there is now about 12 feet tall), I was taken by Nally’s holiday greeting of “evergreen and light.”
So I am going to nurture that little pine tree and hope that in my lifetime it will turn into a Christmas tree that I can transplant to northeastern Pennsylvania. But for a long-term energy fix I will look straight up, not northward, for a solution.