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Convert Light to Electric Current, Baby, Convert Light to Electric Current

Photonics.com
Jan 2012
Jan. 17, 2012 — It wasn’t exactly “drill, baby, drill,” but it was a minor kerfuffle about national parks and energy independence. Surely I would find something there to distract me.

The turbid waters of the Pacific curved away as the plane banked right and continued to ascend. Santa Monica rolled past underneath us. West Hollywood. The San Gabriel Mountains. Never a fan of flying — how a piece of machinery so large and cumbersome can stay aloft is beyond me — I tried to focus on the copy of The Los Angeles Times in front of me. A headline in the middle of the front page caught my attention: “The power’s there; U.S. parks want only to tap it.”

The accompanying article noted that millions of dollars have been spent on renewable energy projects that would provide power to the California’s national parks and forests, but these have mostly sat idle because of a years-long dustup with Southern California Edison.

Federal agencies and the utility company have been trying negotiate an interconnect agreement to tie the projects to California’s power grid. The sticking point reportedly involves contract restrictions imposed by federal law, though the agencies have been able to hammer out agreements with utilities elsewhere in the state with little or no problem or delay.

As a result of the impasse, instead of taking advantage of renewable energy and returning power to the grid, the parks service and forest service are still purchasing electricity from Southern California Edison.

Projects currently on hold, according to The Los Angeles Times, include a new $800,000 solar project in Death Valley National Park, photovoltaic panels in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and a solar power system at a new U.S. Forest Service facility at Mono Lake. Some of the panels were put up as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009.

In the two years the park service and forest service have been negotiating with company, officials said, a projected savings of tens of thousands of dollars has slipped away. A newly renovated visitors center in Death Valley National Park could have yielded a 70% savings in energy costs, for example, cutting an estimated $31,828 from an annual electric bill of $45,724.

This comes at a time when upwards of 70 of California’s 278 state parks are facing closure due to budget cuts, and many of those remaining open will offer reduced services. The closures won’t affect the national parks hosting the renewable energy projects described here, but the latter could provide a model of how to reduce costs in state parks – if only the projects were to go online.

Solar power faces a number of challenges in the coming years and decades. These include, of course, possible resistance from entrenched interests in the energy industry (in my notes to an article about the future of solar, I made reference to “marauding bands of oil execs wielding blackjacks and tire irons,” for instance.) It’s not just that, though. The story I read in the The Los Angeles Times might simply be an example entrenched bureaucracy, or even just of entropy on a sweeping scale. These, as much as anything, will need to be overcome as we press forward with solar.


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