The Call and Times, Column 8 – Here Comes the Sun

14 05 2014

(May 2, 2014)

The Urban  Farmer

Here Comes the Sun

If the blooming daffodils, sprouting mint, and budding trees are any indication, the cold weather has finally, begrudgingly broken, and summer is on its way. And, barring the cloudy and particularly wet spring we’ve been enjoying, there is one thing that comes to everyone’s mind this time of year: the summer Sun. In this month’s column, I want to discuss an urban farming practice that is near and dear to my heart, the subject of much of my education and about 15% of my thoughts – solar energy.

Before I get to the techie discussion, let’s talk on a global scale. All matter (physical “stuff”) is perpetually cycled around the surface of the Earth, with basically nothing being gained from or lost to space. These cycles are driven by what is essentially the only external “input” that our planet receives, light from the Sun. The movements of the water and wind, the Caloric energy in food, and the heat of the air are all the indirect products of solar energy, making its way to Earth.

And this is not a concept to be taken lightly. That sunlight is responsible for almost everything that happens on Earth. And life literally runs on sunlight, because certain creatures (like plants) take in energy through photosynthesis, and others (like animals) consume them in order to get it themselves. Being animals, humans must eat plants, fungi, and other animals in order to obtain energy, but unlike the rest of the natural world, we also use energy for other purposes. We use it in our cars, to heat our homes, to run the economy, and to transfer information. Yet we are still bound by the fact that our world’s only source of energy is sunlight. Except, that is, for fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels were created over millions of years, when the bodies of plants and animals were buried and compressed, and their carbon-rich biomass (whose energy came from sunlight) was turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. By building our modern society on the foundation of fossil fuels, we’ve come to rely on an unstable energy supply and an unsustainable economic model, and we are harming our environment and have begun to change the climate.  At this point, our only hope is that big ball of light in the sky.

Now, I’ll give a little technical primer on how a solar energy system works, a jumping-off point so that you can investigate it further. There is a lot of solar energy hitting your roof constantly, energy that a solar (photovoltaic, PV) cell will convert into electricity. Solar cells are assembled into panels, which are themselves combined to form a solar array, to the power specifications of (for our purposes) the residence. The output from a solar array is “direct current” (DC), which means that the current only flows in one direction through the wires. A charge controller extracts this energy, and can charge a bank of batteries for short-term storage, or feed the electricity to an inverter, or both. The low-voltage, DC electricity fed to the inverter is turned into higher-voltage, “alternating current” (AC), which means (you guessed it) that the current switches between flowing forward and backward through the wires. This AC power can be used to run regular household appliances, and can also be fed back to the grid through a special service panel (and possibly through something called a bi-directional or net meter), to be sold to the electric grid. This can be done only with the consent of the electric company, from whom the net meter and service panel are obtained. The energy stored in the battery bank, at the command of the charge controller, can later be fed through the inverter to either the grid or your devices, for times when the Sun is not shining.

If I’ve done my job right, you are probably asking yourself, “What can I do to bring solar energy into my life?” The answer is simple: install a solar energy system! A complete system can be bought outright for $10,000 to $20,000 (depending on your home’s geographical orientation, and how big of a system you want to install). This option has the highest capital cost, but will cost the least over its lifetime. Alternatively, there are a variety of financing options – ranging from a low-interest loan (from a willing bank or a solar energy company) to a “rent-to-own” system where you essentially pay with your electric bill savings. There are many companies in Rhode Island that offer these options, which also provide a free assessment of your home’s solar energy potential and a system pricing estimate. But that’s not all. The federal government provides a no-cap, 30% tax credit of the total purchase and installation price of the solar energy system (along with other renewable energy systems). State governments often offer grants or tax credits as well – Rhode Island’s grant has been depleted for this year, but is expected to be restored next year, with a 25+% subsidy of the price after the federal deduction . These incentives amount to a nearly 50% subsidy, drastically reducing the cost of a solar energy system. (More information can be found at

In addition, Woonsocket’s City Councilman Roger Jalette constructed and passed an ordinance, 13-O-22, which established a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) for solar energy systems. This allows commercial entities to install solar photovoltaic systems, and pay a very small fee per kilowatt of capacity installed, rather than seeing an increase in their property taxes with the value of the system. This is a huge step in the right direction of making solar more accessible to our citizens. Councilman Jalette should be applauded for constructing legislation that is both good for the environment and for business, and we should advocate for similar measures to be enacted for residences in the very near future.

Solar photovoltaic is a pretty remarkable source of energy. The electricity that your solar array produces releases no carbon dioxide or any other pollutant. Solar democratizes energy production by giving citizens the capacity to produce their own power, and stabilizes the energy supply by allowing us to rely on our own, sustainable natural resources, rather than importing quickly-depleting fossil fuels from countries with which we have less-than-perfect relationships. No wars have ever been, nor will ever be, fought over solar energy, yet for every dollar of your taxpayer money that has gone to fund solar projects, 72 have gone to subsidize fossil fuels. And while an oil spill is an environmental nightmare, a “solar energy spill” is simply a nice day.

Home energy production is the definition of sustainability, and indeed, is urban farming at its best. Solar energy gives each one of us a chance to opt out of the unsustainable system that we were born into, instead allowing us to feed our innate desire for security and self-sufficiency. Solar makes financial sense, with its significant return on investment. It makes environmental sense, with its elimination of climate-changing fossil fuel emissions. It makes urban farming sense, because it connects us more deeply to the amazing, one-of-a-kind world of which we have the honor of being a part, and allows us to live a high quality of life, without stealing from our grandchildren their ability to do the same. To give some perspective, all of the fossil fuels on Earth represent just 20 days’ worth of solar energy, but enough solar energy hits the Earth in 40 minutes to power our world for a year.

Before we wrap up, I want to draw your attention to an event happening later this month. On May 24, 2014, people all around the world will be rallying against genetically modified food, in the annual March Against Monsanto. I will be among them, and I hope my readers will be as well. More information can be found on their website,, and on their Facebook page.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.