• Solar choices
    August 21,2013

    Climate change is a clear and present danger to humanity, and scientists say with greater certainty than ever that mankind is the principal cause. That is the lesson to be drawn from the latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that every five or six years draws together the most definitive scientific information on climate change.

    In that context, it was disappointing when Washington Electric Cooperative announced recently that after Oct. 1 it would no longer take power from residential solar arrays larger than 5 kilowatts. There are reasons the co-op, a small member-owned utility in central Vermont, had to make that decision, but given the imperatives of the climate crisis, it is frustrating that bringing abundant solar power on line is still so difficult.

    Washington Electric’s decision follows upon the problems encountered earlier by Green Mountain Power in harnessing the wind power produced at its Lowell Mountain project. The electric power grid was not equipped to handle the amount of power coming from the Lowell wind generators, forcing the operators of the grid to demand that GMP curtail its wind power production. Instead the operators of the New England grid were forced to rely on expensive fossil fuel generators whose power was more readily accessible to the grid.

    And yet the evidence from the world scientific community about the seriousness of climate change has grown ever more dire. Projections suggest that by the end of the present century, sea levels might rise by 3 feet. If that were to happen, major cities around the world would be in danger, including New York, London, Shanghai, Sydney, Venice, Miami and New Orleans. That’s not mentioning heavily populated and vulnerable coastal regions, such as Bangladesh, and a host of island nations.

    The upheavals and mass migrations that would occur should climate change unfold as projected make present migration issues involving Mexicans in America and Africans in Europe only the palest foreshadowing. The United States could expect mass migrations out of the Southwest, as drought makes the region unlivable, and out of Florida, away from rising oceans and withering heat. Vermont could experience an influx of population like it has never seen.

    The natural world is already undergoing massive changes as ice caps melt and climate zones shift. Animal and plant species are likely to go extinct on a mass scale, and agriculture could be thrown into turmoil.

    In the past the international panel has been conservative with its projections, and the reality of climate change has consistently outpaced scientific predictions. But the latest report, a draft of which was leaked to the press, has grown firmer in its certainty about human causation and more dire about likely consequences.

    The problem at Washington Electric is that as more customers start producing their own power, selling back to the utility the power they don’t use, the utility is receiving less revenue, which means ratepayers who are not producing their own power are left to pick up most of the utility’s costs. The utility can only go so far in becoming a consortium of tiny independent power producers while also providing power to ordinary customers.

    Green Mountain Power remains a solar booster. It is working on other models for using solar power, including a community solar project in Rutland that will allow residents to sign up to receive power, based on a lease with the solar producer. It is time for clever people to think up ways to enlist the enthusiasm and interest of the customers of small utilities, like Washington Electric, to allow for maximum production of solar power.

    Solar ought to be cheap. The fuel is free, and emissions are nonexistent. We are facing a historic transformation of human civilization that will be all the harsher if we don’t do everything possible to harness sustainable technology in every village and city. The utilities ought to work together, with help from industry and government, to bring as many people as possible into the new solar era. There is little choice.

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