Harness The Sun, A New Work From Wind Harvester Philip Warburg

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Harness the Sun cover photo“Love me some sun,” says Philip Warburg.

Well, not exactly—the longtime environmental lawyer and former president of New England’s half-century old Conservation Law Foundation titles his new book Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar-Powered Future (Beacon Press, September 2015). But like the expression, the book’s import carries the most weight for the newest generations. Harness the Sun calmly shatters the power industry’s status quo.

Amory Lovins, Founder of Rocky Mountain Institute (elmundo.es)
Amory Lovins, Founder of Rocky Mountain Institute (elmundo.es)

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts unprecedented record-breaking this year for renewable power. It favors solar energy as the basis of this transformation. Amory B. Lovins, physicist, internationally known energy expert, and esteemed founder and head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, recently reviewed Harness the Sun in the top-rated magazine Science. He compared the rise of solar technology to the instant success of cellular phone production.

Warburg himself makes a simple, grounded comparison of fossil-fueled power plants with sustainable renewable power technologies:

“[A] power plant that relies on a carbon based fuel like coal gas or oil creates an energy deficit from the moment its fuel is extracted from the earth…. Every kilowatt-hour of power is dependent on the burning of a polluting climate-changing nonrenewable energy source.”

Harness the Sun is a compellingly quick and comprehensible read not only because of Warburg’s graceful and effort-free writing style, but also for its deeply researched footnotes, which appear at the end of the book, and weighty index. Its central tenets:

  • World citizens and politicians share solar energy as a common cause despite views that span the ideological spectrum.
  • Diverse groups of people across mainstream America have committed to solar.
  • In essence, generating solar power is a fundamentally democratic process associated with basic independence.

Philip Warburg, author of Harness the SunChapter One: Our House, Your House reflects the personal bridge Warburg immediately constructs between author and reader. The author begins by retelling his own experience of coming to understand solar power by trying to harness the sun in personal ways, starting with powering the house where he lives with rooftop solar panels that now meet 75% of his family’s electrical needs, and keeping their hybrid car perpetually loaded with a tankful of sunshine.

Warburg branches out from there to discuss solar photovoltaic systems on homes of varying sizes and scales, from those that improve life in previously underserved areas to systems that can help stabilize grid resources for an increasingly power-hungry middle class. And he clarifies the astonishing reach of solar energy.

The growing scale of solar PV (GTM Research and SEIA 2014a)

In the next two chapters, “Ballfields and Boxtops” and “Local Communities Capture the Sun,” the author moves forward to individual commercial, industrial, and institutional installations—Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, for example. He also spotlights solar strides at many big-box stores (although increased efforts by these companies at the point of manufacture would yield far more impressive results). Pointing out diverse and significant local, state, and other subregional efforts, Warburg focuses on community solar. Interesting tales include that of the conservative mayor of Lancaster, California, who wants to make his locality “the solar capital of the world.”

Warburg’s energy travelogue then extends to reuse of the nation’s brownfields, damaged industrial and military areas potentially contaminated with pollution and hazardous wastes. These sites, previously thought virtually useless, offer great potential for development of renewable energy. Lovins even takes Warburg to task for underestimating the potential of parking lots.

Deserts and Native American territory also offer unexpected expansion space for land-gobbling renewable projects, especially for large solar projects. Tribal lands comprise 2% of the US, but offer 5% of our solar potential. The only hitch is that tribal land ownership disputes, like those of the Navajo and Hopi, may complicate matters.

Warburg segues here from a central focus on solar panels to a discussion of solar on the macro scale, which currently requires a lot of space. He uses southern Nevada’s Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, a sprawling 110MW concentrated solar power plant in the Nevada high desert near Tonopah, to focus on this other side of solar. Nowhere near as publicly recognized as PV panels, utility-scale plants like Tonopah use thousands of heliostatic mirrors to focus intensive thermal energy, converting sunlight to heat to produce steam and generate electricity. At nighttime when the sun doesn’t shine, the parabolic trough systems can keep generating power for up to 10 hours. This solar thermal capability gets past the often cited intermittency of photovoltaic and wind technologies.

Chapter Eight: Cradle to Grave follows the life cycle of photovoltaics at Solar World’s factory near Portland, Oregon. Warburg also delves into tales of First Solar and SunPower, two other important companies in today’s renewable world. Highlights of this discussion include the vital concept of conversion efficiency and limits on solar energy uses. A critical suggestion Warburg contributes to the dialogue is that manufacturers and importers of solar power should report on the life-cycle carbon footprint of their projects.

Average number of homes powered by 1MW of solar photovoltaics (Harness the Sun)Building a Robust Solar Economy, the next chapter, comes to the heart of Warburg’s excellent argument. The graph he reproduces from the Solar Energy Industries Association, which shows the averages of home solar in 25 states and the District of Columbia, makes his point without using words.

Here Warburg ventures into the politics of solar power and the energy independence it can enable. Discussing private-sector initiatives, he points out serious financial commitments from companies like Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, Apple, and Google, highlights comments from different manufacturing concerns, and extends his international analysis. Very important here are his direct comparisons with petroleum (especially much-touted natural gas), coal, and nuclear energies. The price drop in solar is compelling.

Fall of crystalline silicon photovoltaic solar cell costs from 1977 ( Bloomberg New Energy Finance)

The title of the last chapter, Disrupting the Utility Status Quo, is probably the hardest for industrial dinosaurs and heavily petro-invested politicians to get hold of, even though the verb “disrupt” has taken on a more civilized and acceptable bent these days. Lovins describes the present-day US as “a society rife with solar myths, many deliberately manufactured.”

Though it’s hard to fault Warburg for what he doesn’t do—especially considering his thorough coverage of the many issues he does discuss—I feel that he could have elaborated more on the denial side of the story. Consider the impact of recent revelations by the press about ExxonMobil’s 40-year manipulation of the public’s trust about the environmental and atmospheric effects of fossil fuel use. As a reporter and pundit of world climate change, I’m a bit saddened by the author’s lack of attention there.

But Warburg does get into other challenges of solar adoption, such as grid, nongrid, and grid-free distribution of energy, recycling of PV modules, and impacts of solar on other species such as birds, and competition and trade wars between international solar concerns. He resists pigeonholing people into conventional party politics, recalling such efforts as Barry Goldwater’s early environmentalism.

And Lovins points out that in terms of significance, a little goes a very long way, thinking about highly disruptive occasions such as solar power production upending business models and market value of major European utility companies—before it reached even 5% of German power generation.

The epilogue to Harness the Sun discusses Warburg’s optimism about the immense potential for solar power in our future. Warburg details how every consumer can profit through leases or power purchase agreements, which currently cover almost three-quarters (72%) of rooftop solar installations. He also mentions system loans, cash, self-financing, local innovation, private-sector initiatives, and national policy reform. More on these trends for our future energy system would have been welcome.

Lovins faults the author for failing to discuss flexible loads, distributed thermal storage, and other cheap substitutes for bulk electrical storage. However, Warburg and Lovins both feel sure that the US can re-attain global status as a leader in solar production. Warburg says:

“As one of the biggest producers of the greenhouse gases that threaten our global environment, America has a duty to lead the way, rather than lag behind, in making these momentous shifts [toward solar power]. Through the personal choices we make, the policies we adopt, the technical genius we apply, and the entrepreneurial spirit we engage, we can make a difference.”

He makes it clear that the final path for solar involves widening our electricity mix, moving toward a lower-carbon economy, and actually driving future economic development with a multiplicity of jobs in solar manufacturing, sales, installation, and project development.

As solar technology has improved, the legislative atmosphere has begun to catch up to it, and the financial returns have multiplied. Warburg concludes:

“A new generation of entrepreneurs and engineers is weighing in with vision and creativity, opening up new frontiers for solar development, and politicians across the political spectrum are waking up to the opportunities that accompany a genuine commitment to renewable energy. The tools for advancing a more sustainable energy future are within reach. It is our obligation and privilege to use them.”

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13 thoughts on “Harness The Sun, A New Work From Wind Harvester Philip Warburg

  • One problem with us, humans, is consumerisem.
    A number of decades ago most people were happy with a smaller house, one car etc.,
    But then a lot of people wanted a bigger house, bigger car, second car etc.
    Like the saying goes : if everybody wanted to live like North Americans we would need what, about 8 planets Earth?

    • That’s okay, we have the resources of the entire Universe for our use. Now we just have to work on the tech to establish a permanent presence on Mars and elsewhere. We seem to be destined to make all matter and energy in our universe intelligent. Without our desire to control more and more resources our species wouldn’t have even evolved. Consuming responsibly and intelligently (sustainably) is necessary however for our long term survival and success.

      • Yes I agree totally with your last sentence!

      • I’ll go along with Martin in regards to agreeing with your last sentence, but further add that the sentences you write leading up to it are contradictory to it. The “don’t worry, be happy” observation that our problems will be magically solved with an eventual colonization of Mars is a bit naive at best. Matt Damon might already be there in the movies, but that’s just a neat Hollywood story for now.

        Martin’s observation that the present day American lifestyle is outsized compared to the rest of the world and that it’s simply bloated for the last 70 years or so is spot on, although we’re actually far from the worst in regards to electrical consumption per person (Iceland . . . yikes!) . . .


        • Certainly didn’t mean don’t worry be happy. We have an incredible amount of work left to survive as a species. Sustainable energy, sustainable consumption to take care of Earth; setting up a backup civilization is crucial though as we are bound to be struck by a large asteroid, comet or other celestial body that could wipe us out.

          • Yes, but Martin’s point of how we – overall – now live in larger houses that require more energy to heat/cool and have larger cars – as well as more of them per household – than even a generation ago is worth emphasizing.

      • So you’re volunteering to invest a large percentage of your personal resources in development of another presence off earth? – “…for our long term survival and success.”

        • Whether I invest or not is irrelevant. The desire to expand, explore, and control resources is inherent in human nature and follows a natural exponential trend that is beyond anyone’s control.

          • Perhaps it is within the control of those who would expand, explore, and control resources. You seem pretty much controlled, what’s your secret? Zen?

      • “That’s okay, we have the resources of the entire Universe for our use.” So far, we do not. We have the earth, where we are acting like children who have yet to learn not to crap inside their own house. And we have a few bins full of moon rocks and dust.

  • The chart of (inverted) electricity use per household disproves the hypothesis attached that it’s all about differences in sunshine. The two most efficient states, California and New Mexico, are about as sunny as Texas and sunnier than Tennessee at the bottom. How about retail prices?

    BTW, the large variation confirms the uselessness of the common PR trope if describing a new generating plant as “powering the equivalent of x homes”.

    • Better comparison:

      Arizona 127
      New Mexico 203

      Same sunny. Same hot.

      • My guess is that Arizona numbers would be much better if you were to be able to take the affluent Phoenix and Tucson suburbs out of the mix . . . lots of McMansions with heavily watered green lawns there.

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