Brave new backyard

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The first thing you need to know about energy is that there is no shortage.

The universe is alive with energy. Whether it be a spinning wind turbine or a photovoltaic solar cell, this energy is often invisible until we find the right trick to tap its power. But never doubt that there is plenty of the stuff.

If there is a crisis, it is that we're plugged in to the wrong type of energy. In fact, we've become addicted to the "grid," the nationwide web of electrical power.

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Most of the energy on the grid is the kind that stinks up the skies, alters the engine of our climate, poisons the rain. We move fuel for it on ships that foul our oceans and in pipelines that explode in our backyards.

We are addicted to the wrong stuff, but perhaps edging closer to kicking the habit. As Californians suffer through rolling blackouts, as Oregon state office workers turn down their thermostats, as manufacturing plants lay off workers, we are starting to realize we have a problem.

Of course, this isn't the first time it's looked like the country was going to clean up its act. Twenty years ago energy was on everyone's mind.

Popular Science carried stories each month promising some new technology.

The cover stories featured super-efficient homes and conservation technology. There was plenty of talk of new power sources, like wind, solar, and tidal energy. There were breakthroughs in energy efficiency. The genius of the world was focused on cleaner, more-efficient power.

Somehow all of that was forgotten, or at least it became less public. It was no longer in our national interest to develop new power sources - or even to find ways to conserve energy. Our cars and houses got bigger and less efficient. The engineers and inventors kept working, however, and quietly, a number of folks used new technology and old ideas to wean themselves from centralized energy.

Some just wanted to build houses in places where it would be too expensive to run power lines. Others were motivated by ethical reasons. As one of my neighbors told me, when the utilities started building nuclear power plants, he couldn't bring himself to take power from them. So he built a fine house with all the amenities, but with no connection to the grid. Solar and wind power provided him with everything he needed.

Quietly, the cost of power generated by home solar and wind units has come down, even as the power these systems can generate has increased. As The New York Times recently reported, while solar systems cost between 15 to 18 cents a kilowatt, fossil fuel power - which five years ago cost a third as much - can sometimes cost the same or more. Our local power providers are projecting a 40 to 60 percent rate increase in the coming year.

New power plants are in the works, but the availability of another fix doesn't reduce the problem of addiction. Building new power plants for the grid is expensive, both ecologically and economically.

Often they are powered by fuels that damage the environment. When they cause problems, it is on a scale that is often larger than the ecological infrastructure can absorb. We in Washington State are still paying for nuclear power plants, even though most no longer produce power.

Perhaps it is the nature of the grid itself that is the problem. It is the enabler of our addiction. It was created around very big centralized production facilities sending power out to millions of users.

Instead, the grid should evolve to distribute power from millions of small power-generation facilities. Communities should start investing to meet their own energy needs by creating power generation that fits the local landscape and requiring new commercial facilities to account for their own power.

Decentralized power generation can be cheaper - economically and environmentally. Moreover, it can be tailored to fit the local need, landscape, and climate. Why should a coastal area with ample wind, tidal, and solar resources be getting its electricity from a coal-fired power plant?

Why should desert areas be dependent on hydropower from a thousand miles away? Rural communities can invest in creating clean power systems that ensure the lights stay on for them, as well as shore up the power-hungry grid at peak times. Rural farmers and ranchers can send clean wind power or even manure power to cities while maintaining their traditional way of life.

The cost of the equipment can be expensive upfront, but tax exemptions and zero-interest loans help defer those costs. Over time, more-efficient appliances and backyard power-generation equipment will pay for themselves, but people need help with the transition. With technology improving and energy prices rising, there has never been a better time to get off the grid - or at least reduce dependence on it.

Even those who live in urban areas can meet their own energy needs. The current issue of Home Power magazine - which does all its desktop publishing off the grid - features an article by Chicago resident John Berton, who now uses solar power as his main source of energy. And if you live in a state with what's called "net metering" you can actually sell your excess power back to your utility. You become part of the solution.

All the stories of people who reduce or eliminate their reliance on the grid involve a common theme: taking responsibility for energy use.

Instead of hoping someone else will pay for a big expensive fix, or relying on some other part of the country to absorb the ecological cost of your lifestyle, these people think about the energy they use and consequently, they use less, and understand the true cost of power more. They even benefit when the lights go out, or when they sell excess power back to the grid.

The technology for conservation and microgeneration will continue to improve. Energy is becoming the sexy technology again. And each backyard and rooftop is a switch waiting to be flipped.

Ed Hunt is the editor of Tidepool news service.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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