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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“Solar power good, wind power bad!”

Solar panels:
Permitted, even though they're not permitted.

By Linda Felaco

Living in a coastal town, and in particular one in New England, which is predicted not only to be the U.S. region hardest hit by more frequent and severe storms in the future but also to see higher sea-level rise than other areas, you’d expect Charlestown residents to be concerned about global climate change and interested in weaning themselves off of fossil fuel and switching to renewable energy.

Solar panels are allowed—though when my colleague Will Collette asked four different town experts whether solar panels violated the Platner Principle seeing as how they’re not specifically permitted in any of the town’s zoning ordinances, he got four different answers. And don’t be surprised if one of these days the Planning Commission comes up with some crazy ordinance specifying permissible colors and materials.

Geothermal energy:
Permitted even though it's not permitted.
Geothermal energy presumably is also legal seeing as how the new Charlestown Wine and Spirits has been using it—though strangely enough, I can’t seem to find any mention of geothermal energy anywhere in the town’s ordinances, which would seem to be a violation of the Platner Principle.

Though the town did go to the trouble of banning outdoor wood furnaces outright in 2010 instead of simply applying the Platner Principle. Since an outdoor furnace means building a new structure outside the dwelling, the zoning use table should have been enough, under the PP, to ban them, but the Council wrote a specific ordinance instead. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the town has banned the green energy technologies that are cheaper and simpler to use. Wood furnaces rely on simple combustion and wind turbines rely on simple mechanical energy, but turning sunlight into electricity involves complex chemical reactions and catalysts that often require rare, hard-to-find, and/or expensive elements.

And both sun and wind produce energy in the form of electricity, which has a major downside: It’s difficult and costly to store, meaning it has to be used as it’s generated, making it difficult to obtain a steady power supply from intermittent sources such as sun and wind. Indeed, ideally, people could use both wind and solar power, since when it’s more windy it tends to be less sunny and vice versa—except that here in Charlestown wind energy is all but verboten.

Not only is electricity difficult and costly to store but it can’t be used as a transportation fuel in traditional combustion engines, which still make up the vast majority of the vehicles on the road. Biofuels are an environmentally friendly and renewable replacement for fossil fuel—but the CCA had former town administrator Bill DiLibero fired for merely suggesting building a biofuel plant here in town, even after the grant proposal he’d written was turned down.

Wind power:
Bad, very bad.
But what if the energy in sunlight could be used to generate energy-rich chemical fuels, such as hydrogen gas, methane, and gasoline, that could be burned anytime or anywhere? Researchers have demonstrated the possibility, although the means for creating such so-called solar fuels have been inefficient and expensive.

Recent advances may put us closer to reaching this goal, however. Last year, researchers reported creating an “artificial leaf” that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen in a similar manner to the way plants carry out the first step in photosynthesis. The leaf is composed of cheap, abundant materials, and the reaction produces no waste products.

In other work, last year scientists came up with a more energy-efficient way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, the first step toward making a hydrocarbon fuel. They used a type of solvent called an ionic liquid that reduces the voltage required to carry out the reaction by about 90%, a significant advance.

A simpler version of the technology, however, is also being developed: a solar array that can convert wood waste and other forms of biomass into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, known as synthesis gas, or syngas, which can be converted into gasoline.

Research on solar fuels is still in the early stages, and much work remains to be done before we can start filling our tanks with it. But given that in Charlestown, everything is prohibited unless permitted, will the CCA cabal permit any of these promising new renewable energy technologies to be used here?