The Renewable Energy Revolution — And Push to Suppress It

We’ve had solar power energizing our house in Sag Harbor on Long Island in New York for six years now—and it’s a bonanza!

Once the photovoltaic panels are up on your roof, nothing more needs to be done. They harvest electricity from the sun even on cloudy days. Never in the half-dozen years have the 38 panels on our roof needed any care. And frequently, looking at the Long Island Power Authority meter attached to the house, I see the numbers going backwards—we’re producing electricity for LIPA for which LIPA reimburses us.

Then there are the two thermal solar panels heating up water and sending it—very well-heated—into the house. The other day, it was 64-degrees outside but the thermometer on the hot water tank in the basement showed water from the thermal panels coming down at 130-degrees. Amazing! And these panels are also care-free.

Meanwhile, the price of solar panels have plummeted since the panels were installed at our house—and efficiencies have gone up, Dean Hapshe of Harvest Power was saying the other day on a visit to check our installation.

Mr. Hapshe of Patchogue, New York is a master teacher of solar installers on Long Island. He entered the solar energy field in 1980 and with his decades of experience has served as an instructor of others in the industry.

When he and his crew put our system in, the cost of the photovoltaic panels, which produce 7,500 watts—an average-size system—was $6 a watt. “Now it’s down to $3.65,” Mr. Hapshe was saying. The efficiency rate has risen to 21%—getting close to the 25% efficiency of solar panels on space systems such as satellites and the International Space Station. That means more electricity is generated for every ray of sunlight.

The thing about solar power is that the sun sends no bills.

And that has been vexing for electric utilities around the nation.

Indeed, the motto of Harvest Power, which is based in Bay Shore, New York is: “Let The Sun Pay Your Electric Bill.”

“Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar,” was the headline of an article in March in The Washington Post. The story, by Joby Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who often writes on energy issues, begins: “Three years ago, the nation’s top utility executives gathered at a Colorado resort to hear warnings about a grave new threat to operators of America’s electric grid: not superstorms or cyberattacks, but rooftop solar panels.”

“If demand for residential solar continued to rise, traditional utilities could soon face serious problems from ‘declining retail sales’ and a ‘loss of customers’ to ‘potential obsolescence,’ according to a presentation prepared for the group. “’Industry must prepare an action plan to address the challenges,’ it said. “The warning, delivered to a private meeting of the utility industry’s main trade association, became a call to arms for electricity providers in nearly every corner of the nation.” The article continued, “Three years later, the industry and its fossil-fuel supporters are waging a determined campaign to stop a home-solar insurgency…”

The New York Times, in an editorial last year titled, “The Koch Attack on Solar Energy,” noted how “the Koch brothers and their conservative allies in state government have found a new tax they can support. Naturally it’s a tax on something the country needs: solar energy panels.”

The Times told of how the Koch brothers, their Koch Industries based on oil refining, “have been spending heavily to fight incentives for renewable energy, which have been adopted by most states. They particularly dislike state laws that allow homeowners with solar panel to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities.”

On Long Island, support for solar power by LIPA—created with a mission to advance the development of solar and other forms of renewable energy on the island—has gone down and down. The once hefty rebate LIPA provided for solar installations has now descended to a paltry 20 cents a watt.

New York State, however, still provides up to $5,000 in support for an installation, and the federal government offers a tax credit of 30% of the cost of a solar system. But this program needs to be extended at the end of next year.

The capacity and economics of renewable energy are simply wonderful. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story headlined: “In Texas. Night Winds Blow in Free Electricity.” It told of how in Texas “wind farms are generating so much electricity” that it is now being “given away.”

There are those who seek to profit from expensive electricity generated by oil, gas, coal and nuclear power—and they would try to suppress the renewable energy revolution now underway. They must be stopped, and the windfall of safe, green, inexpensive electricity be allowed to flow.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Montauk Shore

“Save Montauk” “No More Army Corps”

These were some of the signs as widespread opposition arrived—at long last—to the Army Corps of Engineers project to put “geotubes” at a taxpayer expense of $8.9 million on the beach at Montauk. With the start of the Montauk work, there was civil disobedience—protesters seeking to stop bulldozers—and arrests. And there was a multitude of complaints at an East Hampton Town Board meeting drawing 250 people.

The situation sends an important message about the Army Corps’ yet bigger shoreline project—reactivation of its more than 50-year-old scheme, now with a taxpayer cost of $600 to $800 million, to try to “fortify” the south shore between Fire Island Inlet and Montauk.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based group Defend H20, has been tirelessly challenging the Montauk project. Defend H20 is a key plaintiff in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to stop the placement of what he describes as 14,000 “concrete-like building blocks that weigh 1.7 tons each.”

As heavy equipment under Army Corps contract began excavating gaping holes in the Montauk shoreline last week in preparation for dumping of the “geotubes,” the basis of the project became obvious to many people.

“I think everybody got a major dose of reality when they saw the primary dune being carved out,” Thomas Muse, environmental director of the eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and also a plaintiff in the Defend H20-led lawsuit, told the packed East Hampton Town Board gathering two weeks ago. “Let’s please pause the project.”

It should be cancelled—and promptly.

It and the larger Army Corps scheme were pushed through in a big hurry in the wake of super-storm Sandy. The larger Army Corps scheme was one I began writing about when I came in as a journalist on Long Island in 1962. It was stopped as knowledge was gained regionally and nationally on the science of coastal geology. The plan called for massive sand-dumping along the south shore and construction of rock jetties or “groins” —a concept of “hard” coastal structures determined to be highly damaging to the shore beyond them. The Army Corps scheme underwent a “reformulation” but still wasn’t getting far until Sandy struck and massive amounts of federal money became available for various post-Sandy projects.

The putting of “geotubes” on the Montauk shore is “explicitly prohibited” by East Hampton Town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, declared Mr. McAllister in a formal “declaration” to the court as part of the pending lawsuit.

He blasted the Army Corps’ contention that the tubes would serve as a “dune.” He said this “ignores” the “common sense, and facts…This is excavation and construction of a geobag wall.” And like “groins,” the bags of hardened sand would cause “adjacent property” along the shore to suffer from “accelerated erosion.” Moreover, the beach at Montauk itself will end up drastically narrowed—and not be a sand beach at all but a huge pile of sandbags.

Suffolk politicians at all levels—from East Hampton to Suffolk County to state to federal—have boosted the Montauk project with one exception: Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue. He refused to join his 17 colleagues last year in a measure to have county taxpayers join with those in East Hampton in paying for “operation and maintenance” of the field of “geotubes.” .

Thus all Suffolk County residents will be paying towards the Montauk sandbags.
“I am very familiar with the processes of coastal erosion and the dynamics of the shoreline,” said Mr. Krupski in a letter to fellow legislators. For 20 years he was a member, 14 years president, of the Southold Town Board of Trustees which oversees the shores and adjoining waters of Southold Town. “I believe Suffolk County should not endorse a project that hardens the shoreline,” he said. “This is a project that, one, is sure to fail and cause accelerated erosion to adjacent properties, and two, puts the maintenance on the shoulders of the entire county.”

“The Corps and the Shore” is a landmark book by coastal geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Katharine Dixon about the Army Corps. It explains how with roots in the Revolutionary War it became an entity to build military fortifications—but through the years its power has been widened to include civilian work. It details how with “arrogance” the Army Corps has pursued highly destructive shoreline projects—work in flat contradiction to coastal science. And there is a big follow-the-money aspect, too. The Army Corps district offices “receive funding based on the cost of their projects,” the book notes.

It’s high time that civilian work be taken from the Army Corps and given to a new agency with respect for the environment and a commitment to comply with science.
The agency also should not profit, as does the Army Corps, from the work it orders.