Sunshine is one commodity Tucson has in abundance. We have successfully based our tourism industry on sunshine, blue skies, mountain views, unique vegetation, and cowboy lore, but beyond that Tucson has done little to capitalize on our sometimes over-abundance of the sun… until recently.
With the help of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the University of Arizona received solar power research funds and created a Solar Zone at their Tech Park. Earlier this month, Tucson Electric Power Company began offering customers the option of purchasing solar power, generated by the UA’s solar farm.
Some worry about the water usage of solar power. Large solar power installations can use the sun to generate power to heat water and produce steam to turn turbines, which generate electricity. This is how electricity is generated in traditional electric generating stations, but solar energy has replaced coal, gas or nuclear energy to heat the water. If you use solar power this way, your water usage would be about the same. The savings would come in more abstract ways: not destroying the environment by mining coal and shipping it to the power plant or not building hugely expensive and dangerous nuclear power plants that leave waste we don’t know how to dispose of.
The UA’s Solar Zone features solar panels that use a different technology– concentrated photovoltaic. The panels that individuals install on their homes use photovoltaic technology. UA scientists are building a different type of power plant based on that technology that uses less water than traditional electric generation.
Beyond the Solar Zone
Developing a water-wise method of generating power from the sun– all good. But what else can Tucson do to become the solar capitol of the US?
In my opinion, this should be Tucson’s new motto: Everything that sits in the sun should generate power.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I got this idea from a National Public Radio (NPR) commentary. The commentator challenged the idea of promoting electric cars that have to be plugged into the electric power grid. Her question: why use coal-generated electricity to power an electric car? Why doesn’t the car generate it’s own power? Most cars sit in the sun all day. They can be collecting solar power for their own use, or the solar-panel-equipped cars could be plugged into the power grid at the parking lot and sell energy back as they’re sitting there.
Alternatively, what about carports with solar panels? You could generate electricity for your electric car or your home use. Why not?
The Sky Bar on 4th Ave. recently installed huge, very impressive mega-carports covered with large solar panels in their parking lot. Brooklyn Pizza (a related business next door to Sky Bar) has been making solar-powered pizza for years, but these new solar arrays go beyond pizza-making. Think about it. What a great idea for a Tucson business– give your customers some shaded parking and generate your own electricity.
What Tucson Can Do
How can Tucson use the solar-powered carport/ramada concept to help the citizenry and maybe save money? Most Tucson parks have shade structures for picnickers, and several parks have VERY LARGE shade structures to play basketball. All of the basketball structures and many of the picnic ramadas have electric lights, but none of the have solar panels (as far as I know).
OK, it would be a lot of money to retro-fit the picnic ramadas, but think about it. Why not have solar powered LED lights on those ramadas– instead of regular electric lights powered by TEP? (When we were at Fort Lowell Park on Saturday, the light under our ramada came on automatically at 3 p.m. I have no idea whether this light is on a light sensor or a timer, but what a waste of electricity if this is happening all over the city!)
Maybe a more doable project would be to add solar panels and water harvesting collection tanks to all of the basketball ramadas first. The solar panels could power lights on the basketball court and maybe generate electricity to power a swimming pool heater or help with the power needs of a nearly rec center. Water collected off the roofs could nourish plants, trees, or even a community garden.
I know there are initial investments related to these ideas, but I’m sure there’s grant money out there. Or maybe someone can broker a public/private partnership (as long as the citizens still benefit– and not just the business “partners”.) Adding solar panels and water collection tanks to city-owned shade structures will allow us to use our valuable resources more wisely and improve quality of life of our residents. Who knows? If you add enough photovoltaic panels, it could the economic viability of Tucson’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Let’s think big and green, Tucson.