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June 2009 News

On May 4 we had Erin Burns from the City of Knoxville and Gil Melear-Hough from the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy talk to us about the Solar America City Program. This program is about energy and sustainability and about the combination of both, sustainable energy, or “green energy,” as it has become known.

Deriving at least a part of the energy we consume from renewable sources will reduce the vulnerability from the presently unreliable energy supply and price from foreign sources, and it will also reduce the present strong dependence on coal, that from mining via combustion to residual production creates a plethora of environmental harm, that threatens all the other resources we critically depend upon: air, water, climate, and landscape.

It is highly commendable that Knoxville gets into a solar program, as we know that Knoxville and its surrounding Knox County is the only metropolitan county in the state that has refused so far to install an exhaust checking program for automobiles, that it built a sun sphere 27 years ago, and that we all sat on our hunches instead of grabbing the opportunity then of making Knoxville into a shiny center of solar energy.

One can only hope that this time Knoxville lives up to the challenges of the Solar American Cities Program. Perhaps the time is ripe and outside help is standing by. The Solar American City is a DOE- sponsored program to achieve solar energy competitiveness by 2015. It included 25 American cities. The program statement is as follows: “The solar cities have committed to developing a sustainable solar infrastructure that removes market barriers and encourages the adoption of solar energy by by residents and businesses. These cities are taking a comprehensive city-wide approach that lays the foundation for a viable solar market and provides a model for other cities to follow.”

On a U.S.solar energy potential, Knoxville is not in the zone rated “excellent” or even “very good”, but only “good”, only a notch up from the lowest rating “moderate”.

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The “very good” zone ranges

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from east of the Appalachian mountains through the south to the west. The excellent zone is essentially limited to the desert states of the southwest. The “good” zone extends from the Minneapolis area down to Knoxville and up to Boston including the Midwest. The high humidity and cloud cover that are also responsible for low visibility during the summer months are reflected in this surprisingly low rating. Any pollution added to this already vulnerable climate can only further deteriorate air clarity. Those concerned about visibility in the mountains have long known this connection. In terms of solar altitude, Knoxville beats San Francisco, Denver and Salt Lake City, which are in the “very good” zone; because of their drier climates and perhaps some other factors, these places do not suffer to the extent as Knoxville from this combination of natural and artificial atmospheric pollution. This is another good reason to reduce combustion-generated energy in the southeast.

Twenty-five cities are part of the solar cities initiative. The TVA, KUB, ORNL, the Southern Alliance for Clean Enrgy and the Tennesseee Department of Economic and Community Development are partnering this program. Altogether some $650,000 have been awarded to the program. The presently 30 kW of installed solar energy in the Knoxville area are to be increased to 3,000 kW by 2015, a hundred fold increase that amounts to about 600 homes each installing 5 kW, or even fewer, if a few businesses install considerably more than 5 kW.

The most serious obstacles to reach this modest goal is probably the lack of an attractive financial incentives program. Other barriers are lack of understanding of new technology, lack of experienced installers, lack of information, resistance to innovation, and fear of financial loss. The program strategy is to eliminate these obstacles by increasing public understanding by information and training, and by demonstrating workability (The TVA did just that in its heyday when they introduced new farming methods.) And most important of all, the program must provide an attractive financing model in the form of installation write-offs and a market

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for the solar energy produced from private sources.

A high visibility installation is planned at the new downtown transit center. Unfortunately most people who have the money to install solar pannels don’t go there. The Ijam Nature Center is a good place as it attracts youngsters. Pellissippi State Community College will have solar installer certification courses, people with resources will be encouraged to participate in building a solar market. In Germany, where solar energy potential is not more than modest, financial incentives have to be high, $0.48 to 0.70/kWh, here it is $0.14 to $0.20/kWh. Compared to the solar energy potential of central European countries, the U.S. is a sleeping giant.

The harvesting of solar energy will also affect housing development. If there is no compelling reason to do otherwise, houses should be oriented so that a major roof area has due south exposure. Also there will have to be solar easements so that one owner cannot shade out his neighbor.

The preferred way of solar energy use is to convert it directly into electricity through photovoltaics. Ground exploitation of solar energy has unfortunately low efficiency. Only about half of the 1.35 kW/m2 that arrives at the top of the atmosphere gets down to the ground, and of this only about 10 percent is presently convertible into electricity. But improvements in conversion efficiency are constantly being made. WOW.

For more info go to www.cityofknoxville.org/policy/energy; eburns@cityofknoxville.org; gil@cleanenergy.org.

 
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