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Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar-Powered Future

Book Review_HarnesstheSun_BW_VNBy Philip Warburg, 226 pages, hardbound, Beacon Press, $27.95

Book review by N. R. Mallery

After Philip Warburg’s Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability was published in 2012, he went on to take another in-depth look at a renewable energy technology. His latest work, due out this September, is Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar-Powered Future. Like his earlier book, it displays both depth and breadth of knowledge and posits an optimistic view of our potentials.

Warburg’s credentials on energy go beyond the academic. His home is powered by solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Given this, it is hardly surprising that his research is as thorough as it is. Nor is it a surprise that it is so encouraging.

The United States, he points out, is not the nation with the greatest amount of solar power capacity installed. Solar power, however, is growing rapidly, both here and abroad.

Describing his research into the current situation for solar, he takes us around the country, examining the ways that solar power has been adopted by diverse groups of people. From students to business leaders, from professors to politicians, solar has wide appeal.

One of the things about solar PVs that make them appealing is that they are fundamentally democratic. They can be owned by nearly anyone, providing a measure of independence that had never previously been contemplated. The democratic aspect of solar power is not universally liked, as it puts economic pressure on predominantly monopolistic utilities, requiring them to adjust not only their infrastructure but their business plans.

People who oppose extensive development of solar power sometimes complain about the amount of land it requires. Warburg addresses this. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory provided the information that getting all our power from solar power would require development of about 0.6% of our land. Of course, that does not have to be land we value for some other purpose. It can be on rooftops, parking lots, or land that is hard to use because it has been destroyed in one way or another.

The numbers relating to what can be done with solar PVs on damaged and polluted land are almost astonishing. The United States Environmental Protection Agency did a survey of brownfield sites in our country. Those they identified as potentially useful for solar power would be sufficient to produce about 5,500 gigawatts. Warburg says this would be sufficient to power 800 million households, about seven times the number we have. And that is just the land we would have problems cleaning up for some other use.

The book also provides information on the solar potential of the individual states. Even such states as Maine, Minnesota, and Washington, with poor solar exposure in winter, have abilities to meet their needs several times over.

Warburg goes into the manufacture of solar PVs in some depth, providing us with a fascinating story. He discusses the technologies used for concentrating solar, in which heliostats focus the sunlight to make it brighter or hotter. Then, having dealt with solar manufacturing, Warburg goes through the lifetime of solar systems, up to the point when the panels need to be dismantled and recycled.

He compares solar systems with those powered by fossil fuels and nuclear power. He says, “[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.” He goes on, “Every kilowatt-hour of power is dependent on the burning of a polluting climate-changing nonrenewable energy source.” The disadvantages of fossil fuels are clear. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear are all found wanting, as none is economical in the long run, and all have potentially huge environmental problems.

Warburg addresses the politics of solar power, especially as it affects how we develop as a society, bringing energy independence to many people, and with distributed resources providing security and efficiency. He examines the competition and trade wars between international solar industries.

And he talks in some detail about the potential for solar power in the future. This is one of the most interesting and hopeful topics of the book. We clearly have the technologies we need to combat climate change and address pollution while achieving energy independence and security.

Harness the Sun is an exciting book. I highly recommend it. It will be available on September 8.

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