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EARTHWATCH : Day in the Sun : Photo voltaic cells are helping solar energy to come out from the shadows.


Next time you hit a slow patch on the Ventura Freeway and a call box comes into view, look at the top of the pole. That shiny black rectangle, tilted like half of a birdhouse, is a solar panel.

It's supplying electricity for the two-way radio-telephone in the box via photo voltaic (PV) cells embedded in the panel. By day, the cells power the phone and simultaneously feed a rechargeable battery that provides power for nighttime activity.

The flat PV-solar cells are, to coin a phrase, a sun-worshiping cousin of a battery with its insides on the outside. (And that's as technical as I'm going to get in today's column.)

You don't have to be Caltrans to do things with solar PV power. Ventura Hardware stores sell solar-powered outdoor lights that illuminate your garden path at night. You just stick the gizmos in the ground around the house. During the day they store up power in a rechargeable battery and at night they shine.

I even have a solar-powered flashlight. It looks like those boxy hang-on-the-wall-to-charge macho flashlights seen on TV. Except mine has a solar panel on the housing that runs to the rechargeable battery inside. I just leave it on the windowsill.

Somehow I got the idea that it could last a lifetime (one way to rationalize paying $50 for it). I called the company down in San Diego County. "Will it last a lifetime?" I asked. "How old are you?" she asked in response. I could tell by her voice that this impudent person was a mere slip of a girl. I told her the truth anyway. "It'll last you a lifetime," she said.

To recover from that jab, I sought comfort in Time magazine's business section. If you think that's a strange place for an environmentalist to go for balm, think again. Before I go on to list more sun-powered products, let me explain in Time magazine's words why it's worth your while to read on. "Pondering the pitfalls facing investors in a period of economic turmoil, Time's Money Angles columnist (Andrew Tobias) offers guidelines for financial survival. . . ."

"Here's what to do with your money . . . Don't panic . . . Don't speculate . . . Invest in personal energy conservation . . . ." He advised that when you need new appliances and vehicles, buy the most efficient ones.

Then he went on to recommend stock and municipal bonds. But look what was first on the list!

I guess even in his tower on 6th Avenue in New York, he notices that our fuel-wasting economy would profit from a change to renewable energy.

In this context, it becomes a mainstream thing to check out such modest appliance items as solar-powered battery rechargers, fax machines with a solar panel instead of an electric cord, a solar-powered car ventilator that continually draws out the furnace-blast of hot air that gets stored up when you park your car in the sun (fighting fire with fire, so to speak) or--at the other extreme--a rancher's blizzard-buster, which thaws the ice on the water trough so the cattle can drink in December.

This stuff is the first wave of energy independence for consumers. And the mainstream is now recognizing that this also means financial independence.

Ventura and Sacramento electric utility providers are going to use solar (both PV and mirror-collectors) to generate electricity--eliminating vulnerability from future oil shocks. You already can purchase your own solar-powered generator for $500, which, unlike its gas-powered cousin already widely in use, can never run out of fuel. I'll bet your little solar calculator looks interesting all of a sudden.

Richard Kahlenberg has worked on behalf of Greenpeace and has been active in The Urban Resource Network and The Environmental Coalition.


Outdoor night light: any housewares store.

Flashlight: (800) 543-9124.

Battery charger and car ventilator (603) 924-9541.

Generator of Fax: (Harding) (616) 847-0989.

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