Longest Solar Eclipse Ever

Solar eclipse. Are fossil fuels blocking our full use of the sun?

There was a time when a solar eclipse struck fear into the hearts and minds of those who did not understand what caused the sun to briefly disappear during the middle of the day. Now when the moon casts its shadow while passing between the earth and sun we enjoy the relatively rare experience.

We’ve long lived in the shade of another solar eclipse of sorts; however no celestial body was responsible. I’m referring to man’s discovery, use, and abuse of fossil fuels. By building a modern society that relies too heavily on coal, oil and natural gas, we’ve deprived ourselves of the benefits of using clean solar resources to their maximum potential. The irony is that, although we can’t see this eclipse, it has the potential to create lasting harm.

Coal is the dirtiest form of fossil fuel; natural gas burns cleaner and releases less carbon dioxide. The discovery of huge new deposits of natural gas in the U.S. is driving an unprecedented drilling boom. It’s good to use a cleaner fuel to cook, warm our homes and heat water, right? Well sort of. As usual, there’s more to the story.

The image of a few benign wells tapping into a gigantic underground bubble of natural gas is far from reality. Modern well fields are spreading over huge areas of once-pristine land and can consist of hundreds of wells. Each well is built on a large bulldozed area called a “pad.”  Pads are often so close together and linked with so many roads that any semblance of nature and wildlife habitat is obliterated, contributing further to the already severe loss of biodiversity.

But it gets worse. A technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has been developed to recover gas that would otherwise be difficult or more expensive to extract. Fracking rigs pump a mixture of water, sand and very toxic chemicals underground to break up the rock. Some of the toxic brew comes back up and flows into exposed “holding” ponds that can decimate animals and vegetation, the rest stays underground and can seriously contaminate groundwater. The practice is exploding throughout the Mountain West and even the Eastern U.S., including New York City’s watershed. Many of our fellow citizens are suffering from chronic illness due to contaminated wells. There’s one additional minor detail: the oil and gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. They can legally inject known hazardous materials directly or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. The practice is unchecked by the Environmental Protection Agency!

This is another example of the ill effects of our current “solar eclipse” and our addiction to fossil fuels. But there is something we can do about it. Go solar.

Many homes in Southern Nevada use natural gas. Solar energy can easily provide much of that energy. An inexpensive solar oven can save on cooking fuel, but a solar thermal system goes much further and can provide most of our domestic hot water and even contribute to space heating when designed properly. Using the sun to create domestic hot water is simple, relatively inexpensive and good for our health.

The most recent Nevada Legislature mandated a program to encourage the use of solar hot water systems in Nevada. Major utilities, including Southwest Gas and NV Energy, will be implementing a rebate program once rules and procedures are finalized but no definite date has been set. This program will help spur an industry that is long overdue in our state.

I’ll provide more details about solar hot water systems in a future column. The bottom line is they can help reduce our need for energy derived from fossil fuels, while still providing the benefits we depend on. Get ready. It’s time to move beyond the shadow of our energy eclipse in the bright dawn of solar power!

Green Living column for Thursday, February 11, 2010, published in the Las Vegas Review Journal: “Sunny outlook on horizon for renewable energy”

Additional Resources:

Don’t miss the new documentary Gasland.

The Next Drilling Disaster? from The Nation

How Long Will the Natural Gas Industry Run Amok in the Northeast?

From Pennsylvania to Ohio, natural gas drilling is wreaking havoc on communities and landowners. What will it take to get stronger regulatory oversight?

Once again corporations are taking advantage of the absence of regulatory controls. And the public pays the bill. Corporations get the profits and the public will pay for the mess/downside.

Watch this trailer for the excellent documentary “Split Estate” to get an idea of the impact gas drilling is having on our land.