Fire in the Sky
Early on a clear morning, two hikers climbs to the top of a rocky overlook above the Colorado River. The bridge that crosses the river is just beginning to fill with cars – a slow trickle that will slowly turn into a steady flow of commuters. Cyclists in the middle of a morning ride coast downhill through the lazy fog that settles over the bridge and the river. The bikes vanish and reappear through the thin clouds.
The hikers lay down a blanket and drink coffee from a steaming thermos. Their feet hang over the edge of the cliff. The sky to the east is no longer the night’s deep blue. In the few minutes since they left their car, it has changed to a million shades of gray, and already the gray is being invaded by the first hints of pink and orange.
We have an incredibly intimate, long-distance relationship with the sun. For the earth, it is a source of almost limitless energy and incredible beauty. We wake up early to watch sunrises or seek out high points to watch the sun set.The sun warms and lights the earth. The heat from the sun fuels the water cycle, and plants rely on the sun’s light for photosynthesis. Think of it like solar power for plants: turning the energy contained in photons from the sun, into energy for the plant.
The photon that gives its energy to the sugar molecules made by plants comes from a fusion reaction on the sun, travels across the solar system, and finds its way to us. That energy never disappears. It had a source before it was contained in atoms, and once it comes to earth, it is transformed again and again. At every point, some portion of the original potential energy of the photon that first hit the plant is transformed into another kind of energy, as it goes from food for plants to fossil fuel to usable fuel.
To the west, the river emerges around a hill and flows toward them, reflecting the slowly changing sky, mixing blues and pinks with the dark green of the water. The light from the sun makes its way, rushing from the tops of the highest trees downhill to the river.
Cars scurry along the highway and over the bridge, each set of headlights like a plow that pushes the fog from the road until there’s nothing left as the last of the night makes way for the morning light and the tender blue of day commands the sky.
We rely on this transformation of energy for most of our energy sources. We consume it when we eat our food, whether it’s meat or plants. When we fuel for cars and create electricity for homes, that energy originally came to us from the sun.
Technologies are being developed and improved every day to make better use of that energy, and with an unknown amount of fossil fuels left, people are looking ahead to a time when all we have access to is the sun, rather than the fossil fuels that stored the sun’s energy millions of years ago.
This is an exciting time for renewable energy sources, especially solar: prices are coming down for solar panels; Tesla just announced an affordable, reliable, long-lasting lithium ion battery; and federal and local incentives are available to help cover costs. Many installers even offer financing to eliminate the large down payment that was typically required to own solar. Like buying a car or house, people now have the tools to own their electricity rather than being subject to ever-increasing costs.
People are taking to solar in unprecedented ways. Locally, Georgetown announced plans to get all of its electricity from wind and solar. And different utility companies, Austin Energy included, are doing what they can to encourage homeowners to invest in solar technology. Add those rebates to the tax credit from the IRS, and you can get an incredible deal on a solar system to help you take advantage of all the energy making its way across the solar system.This is a huge change from a few decades ago when photovoltaics (light-electricity) was an emerging market, and only the wealthy could afford to buy the expensive, inefficient panels that were being manufactured.
Right now really is the Goldilocks moment for solar – the “just right” place of cost, incentives, and financing. Even retail stores like TreeHouse are finding ways to help customers access this technology and make it as affordable as it will ever be.
As the air warms, the hikers rise, stretch, and shake off the last of the night’s chill. They pack up their bag, take one last look down the river, and walk back toward the car with sunlight brushing their faces.