Introduction, Part 1: Climate Change and the Power of the Sun

The Setting of the Sun Over the Pacific Ocean and a Towering Thundercloud, July 21, 2003 As Seen From the International Space Station (Expedition 7); Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

The Setting of the Sun Over the Pacific Ocean and a Towering Thundercloud, July 21, 2003 As Seen From the International Space Station (Expedition 7); Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

My name is Patrick.  I live in Beacon, New York with my fiancée, Amie, and we’re getting solar panels on our roof.  This weekly blog will predominantly be a first-person account of the discrete events leading up to the installation and activation of those panels as part of a solar lease.

However, I thought I’d start things off with two “big picture” entries: the first about why solar energy is important in the first place, and the second detailing some of my research and how we came to choose the particular solar leasing company that we did.  For many, this first post may cover familiar territory, but I think it’s important to reflect on how the things that we do fit into a larger global and societal situation (as they say, “Think Globally, Act Locally”).  Because, for me, getting solar panels is my own small way of changing the world for the better.

So.  Let’s start with the basics.  Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face as a species (another interconnected challenge being social and economic inequality, but for now I’ll let Robert Reich do the talking on that one).  Many people, places, and animals are already heavily impacted by the effects of climate change.  Droughts are amplifying water crises in the United States and abroad.  Species across the world are facing extinction.  The Maldives and other island and coastal nations are sinking due to rising sea levels.

And we are the cause.

Annual Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1880-2014; National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Annual Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies, 1880-2014; National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The world’s scientific community has repeatedly demonstrated that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are the main cause of climate change.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) last year—100 ppm higher than any time in the last one million years.  According to the EPA, the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is electricity production (which accounted for 32% of all US greenhouse gas emissions in 2012) because “70% of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.”  We need to change where our energy comes from, and we need to do it yesterday.

Solar isn’t the only solution. Wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power can all be great renewable solutions when they’re done right (with nuclear power being a complicated, “lesser evil” stopgap measure; however, when things go wrong with nuclear energy, people die, oceans are contaminated, and even when things go as planned we still don’t really know what to do with the waste it produces).  Governments can invest in dams.  Large companies can invest in wind farms.  But among these alternatives, solar is the most practical consumer solution available today.  And solar leases make getting panels possible for a huge population that wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford them (something I’ll get into further in the next post).

Neil deGrasse Tyson sums up solar’s potential well (in episode 12 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey) by pointing out that, “More solar energy falls on Earth in 1 hour than all the energy our civilization consumes in an entire year.  If we could harness a tiny fraction of the available solar and wind power, we could supply all our energy needs forever—and without adding any carbon to the atmosphere.”

Our job as citizens is to increase that fraction of harnessed solar energy.

We all need to do our part to heal the environment.  Buying local food, especially that which is grown with organic, sustainable, and/or permaculture practices can make a big difference, both to carbon emissions and to support local economies.  Recycling, composting, conserving water, and general thoughtfulness toward environmental impact in daily life can go a long way.  Plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets.  At the enterprise scale, B-Corporations and other socially conscious businesses are doing their part by putting the needs of stake-holders above those of stock-holders.

We’ve all got our bit to do.  And solar panels turned out to be a surprisingly easy way for me to do something too.


Further resources:

2014 was a great year for discussion of climate change in the media, high profile research, and protest.

  • I highly recommend watching Episode 12 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The entire series is amazing—brilliant writing, cinematic special effects, and perfectly chosen stories that weave together a larger web of scientific discovery—but that episode in particular deals entirely with climate change and the power of solar energy in a very direct and inspiring way (the whole first season is available on Netflix Instant, if you’re into that sort of thing).
  • Years of Living Dangerously is a great series that sees journalists and celebrities alike exploring the roots of climate change through the stories of people already affected by it.  The first full episode is free on YouTube, and the first season is on Netflix Instant.
  • As part of Years of Living Dangerously, Robert Reich made a fantastic 3-minute video explaining how putting a price on carbon emissions is one of the best things we can do to combat climate change.
  • The National Climate Assessment’s website is a great resource for learning about how the United States specifically is currently affected (with plain-English summaries along with downloads of the full research report).
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been criticized for being too slow in its release of reports as climate change becomes an ever more dire situation, but 2014’s report finally contained very clear descriptions of “irreversible impacts” and strongly recommended new policies to mitigate climate change.
  • World leaders (from Barack Obama to Xi Jinping to François Hollande to Uhuru Kenyatta) have come out in support of aggressive climate policy.
  • 350.org, NextGen Climate, NRDC, and The Sierra Club are all great places to get involved with climate and environmental action at the local and national levels.

Other scientific research cited in the blog post above:

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5 thoughts on “Introduction, Part 1: Climate Change and the Power of the Sun

    • Interesting question, Adam. The European Environment Agency (EEA) is a good resource for this. Their most recent report on the subject can be downloaded here.

      According to the European Commission, transport accounts for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. It seems like the EU is on track for their goals of reducing transport greenhouse gas emissions by 20% between 2008 and 2030 (see p. 18 of the 2014 EEA report) although there’s been an increase in aviation and shipping emissions which has offset the reductions in other areas (p. 19).

      In the US, we’re a bit later to the game, though still decreasing. Here, transport accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (the next biggest culprit after electricity in 2012 according to the EPA), so reductions have the opportunity to make a big impact. And according to the 2014 Climate Action Report, transportation emissions dropped by 8 percent between 2005 and 2011 (though it fluctuates year to year). People have been driving less because of the financial crisis (2.6% fewer passenger miles driven between 2008 and 2013), fuel costs have increased, and more fuel-efficient vehicles are on the road, all of which have led to reduced transport emissions.

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  1. Pingback: Doubt and Research, pt 2: Customer Complaints and Fear of Commitment | My Solar Journey

  2. Pingback: To Be Continued… | My Solar Journey

  3. Hello Patrick, Don Raskopf told me about your solar blog. It looks great. I’m a volunteer for SOLARIZE BEACON +
    and am in charge of our FB page. I just posted your blog and want to double check to be sure it’s OK with you.
    Please let me know. Thanks so much, Amanda Means (Beacon Resident)

    Like

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