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Energy crisis is "deja vu" all over again

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They say history repeats itself, and it sure has seemed that way lately. Just like back in the 1970s, energy prices are flying high, and hanging onto the jet stream for dear life are a few brave souls who are screaming, "Solar power, solar power!"

Remember all the excitement about solar power in the '70s? It was going to be the answer for everything. There was talk about global warming and the vanishing ozone layer, plus other planetary dangers. Environmentalists were sprouting on every tree, it seemed. But it was all that waiting in line to pump gas that really inspired American citizenry to "Save the Planet" as we had "Saved the World" for Democracy a generation earlier.

We mounted a huge movement to choose paper over plastic. Recycling became chic. Littering became a crime. Millions installed solar-powered yard lights. Compact cars with high mileage cruised the highways. We even saved the Spotted Owl.

The government leaped into the fray with alternative energy research grants and tax incentives to help us buy solar panels and composting toilets, though few of us did. Congress passed pollution laws and protected the wilderness.

OK, so it wasn't on a par with WWII. At least, we made a start. Then somebody changed the channel. "Every litterbit helps" became "Who cares?" Plastic triumphed. Recycling fizzled. Gas-guzzling SUVs now rule the roadways. And topping the trend, the oil industry found jobs at the White House for a couple of its former CEOs, who started to dismantle laws and programs that had made a stab, at least, at slowing down our wasteful, destructive society and discouraged our dependence on fossil fuels.

So now it's deja vu. No lines at the gas pumps yet, but the prices are scary enough. Rolling blackouts in California are unnerving the rest of us. Even as some fossil fuel stock-market investors take their big profits since the election, future-looking investors are pouring money into solar and other alternative energy companies. The Bush Administration, having repaid the oil barons, recently admitted that global warming does exist, by golly, and is showing some interest in alternative energy research.

The media are dusting off old Rolodexes and calling up the alternative energy experts. The stories aren't usually front page, but they are popping up on the back pages. You may be surprised and relieved, as I am, to know that solar power didn't die in spite of the public's creeping complacency and oil industry's pressure on government.

Maybe its time has finally come.

A story out of Ithaca, N.Y. by the Associated Press reports on the recent dedication of the Tompkins County Public Library. On top of the one-story building are 1,430 solar panels that will save the library more than $1.8 million in energy costs over its 30-year-lifetime and provide 20 to 40 percent of the building's power needs. Monthly savings on the library's electric bill are expected to be $1,200 to $1,500. The system was built and installed by PowerLight, and cost $1 million. There is little maintenance required because there are few moving parts, the report stated.

Then, there's the Eco-Cottage at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Eight college girls spent the past year living in a house that runs on solar power. The university compared energy use there to an identical structure next door. The Eco-Cottage used 9,400 fewer kilowatts of electricity. Its solar panels provided up to 90 percent of their electricity, Carolina Channel News4 reported.

It's the stories about the exploding solar technology that are most exciting.

Fortune 500 powerhouses such as Bechtel, Boeing and Scientific Applications International Corp. are bringing to market large-scale, centralized solar technologies, according to an Internet news report by Scott Harris. More on that next week, plus a peek at solar power products available to homeowners and businesses.

Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at viv@cybertrails.com.

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