This is the stuff of science fiction movies which are, by the way, my favorite genre. I have been amazed over and over again how the stuff of science fiction eventually becomes scientific fact. I have always loved science and was pretty good at it in school. Now I just write about it on blogs. One scientific dream that was once science fiction is now becoming a fact and that is the collecting of the Sun’s energy in space and beaming it back to earth. This has, in fact, been an idea bounced around in the scientific world for over 40 years. But Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson aside, this idea has now garnered interest from the US Military as well and thanks to advances in technology is close to becoming reality today.

One of the drawbacks in the development of sources for solar power is that it requires the Sun 24/7, which is just not possible from the surface of an orbiting planet. This requirement is the result of the need for electricity every day, around the clock and the drawback is that the Sun is not available all the time and even when it is, it is often reduced by clouds or rain. So how do you fill in the blanks? So that solar power becomes a viable, around the clock source of electrical power?

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Many of us have experienced the frustration of having a cell phone or MP3 player go dead and being away from a power outlet to charge the batteries. Actually, this isn’t a solely current problem, either, as I recall listening to “dragging” cassette players and static hazed radios many years ago, when I used battery chargers and rechargeable batteries. Being caught on a 10 mile hike with a dead radio is a big drag. This is where portable solar is making big inroads and offering relief. Even if you’re not a big techno nerd with a boombox on your shoulder or an MP3 plug in your ear, you may have concerns about getting off the grid or just saving money on batteries in general. Even you should consider portable solar. Thanks to technology improvements and lower production costs for photovoltaic (PV) cells, you can now harness sunlight at home or on the road to power a variety of products while reducing your environmental impact at the same time.

PV cells generate varying amounts of electricity based on their size and composition, and on the amount of incoming sunlight. Even so there are a lot of products for which sunlight provides a viable and affordable alternative power source and these are already available on the market. If you haven’t purchased one yet or maybe even haven’t even shopped these items, here is a brief list of what I found available today:

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In a generous move towards the forwarding of green energy initiatives, Wells Fargo and Co contributed a whopping $80,000 to GRID Alternatives. Grid Alternatives is a nonprofit that installs solar electricity systems for low income homeowners. The donation from Wells Fargo was earmarked for expansion of the Solar Affordable Housing Program and to build a model for this housing concept that can be replicated nationwide.

This is one of the most valuable contributions I have heard of thus far. This idea, GRID Alternatives, is a viable and tremendously useful solution for the financial outreach of solar energy. It is currently an expensive alternative to oil that most low income people would consider beyond their reach while these are exactly the people who need it most. Thus far, GRID Alternatives has installed over 200 solar electric systems in low income homes and this is currently generating over 3 million in clean renewable power. This effort alone reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 10,000 TONS a year.

“We’re committed to supporting clean, renewable energy and have invested in large-scale wind and solar projects nationwide,” said Barry Neal, director of Environmental Finance at Wells Fargo. “Our contribution to GRID Alternatives supports the deployment of solar electric systems to low-income families who can benefit the most from related cost savings in their electricity bills.”

In their efforts, GRID Alternatives hold down costs by training and leading teams of community volunteers in the job of installing these solar electric systems for low income homes. The organization launched its Solar Affordable Housing Program in 2004 and currently operates in communities in Northern and Southern California in partnership with local governments and nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity.

Wells Fargo integrates environmental responsibility into its business practices and operation. This year it launched a Solar Home Program to support the development of new solar homes in California. Learn more at Wells Fargo Environment.

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If you are a homeowner who has considered going over to solar you know the pitfalls and difficulties you have faced in the past. First of all, it is very expensive. Most people just cannot afford this kind of investment up front, even if it does mean big savings down the line. And then there is the overall confusion among all of us about which systems are available and which will work for you. Toss in the various rebates and incentives and you have a recipe for surrender. Most homeowners just flat out give up out of exasperation, even if they still long for this change.

Enter 1BOG (One Block off the Grid). This new organization is trying to take some of the confusion and expense out of trying to buy solar. 1BOG was formed earlier this year in San Fransisco and it’s main goal is to organize all interested parties and having them buy into solar upgrades on a collective level. They ran their first effort his past summer and found that their idea slashed the prices of solar, including materials AND installation by a whopping 43%! This total is pretty accurate, it even includes all the federal, state and local rebates. On the heels of this success, they are now in the process of expanding this effort into 11 other major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Denver.

The entire concept, pulling together large groups of consumers, amplifies buying power and enables the group to negotiate discounts from suppliers and installers, often for a substantial amount. This brings down the overall cost of this upgrade for all of the participants. It’s sort of like a carpool idea. Everybody rides in the same car and then everybody saves on gas. Imagine if all of you bought a single car and then shared it. This concept puts solar power with the reach of many consumers for the first time in our history.

This concept was the baby of a husband and wife team, a former advertising executive and a Silicon Valley software executive. They created the organization after going the grueling learning experience of researching, buying and installing solar on their own home in California. Once they were done, they had a real education in the process and realized that the project was way too challenging for many folk. They first created a website, Solar4SF.org, for the purpose of simply sharing what they’d learned. They wanted to save everyone else the headache of doing what they had accomplished after so much work.

Along with the website, they also spread the word through community gatherings like flea markets. By the beginning of this past summer they had the first group of 100 people signed up. 1BOG then sent out requests for proposals from vendors in their area; sort of like bidding on a major contract. Their first winning bidder was Real Goods Solar, a company in California that is known for making the very first solar panel sale in the USA over 30 years ago.

At this time,1BOG is a volunteer organization but they are hoping to be successful enough to turn it into a for profit company and be able to hire paid employees. But first and foremost they wish to spread the use of renewable energies, no matter what time and effort that actually takes.

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In Canada and in the United States there are more people talking about adding “smarts” to the power grid. This would mean investing in modernizing the infrastructure and expanding it as well. As a recent example, Google has teamed up with GE in a plan to develop a smart grid. Since there has been so little investment of time or money in the power grid infrastructure, all of this is for the better. If we want to tap the full potential of renewable energy and make the best of conservation methods then this upgrade of the grid is a must. We need a flexible and controllable grid that allows for demand management.

From what I’ve read about it, it seems that the power on the grid is flowing and it will always move towards and through the path of least resistance. What we really need are devices that allow us to use the capacity of the grid more efficiently with less waste and make the grid overall easier to manage as renewables are introduced. The devices that are currently available are called FACTs (Flexible AC Transmission devices) and they are easier to manage and they allow for a grid where distributed generation is growing.

Someone in Canada has come up with a new kind of FACT that can be “retro” fitted to existing grid equipment. This will make this option much more economical for conservative utilties who cannot afford the time and expense of a complete makeover or the introduction of entirely new equipment. I know this is kind of boring compared to building huge wind farms and constructing solar domes, but such basic engineering devices and inventions are the solutions to our real world problems right now.

In the tedious, working world of upgrading to renewable energy and encouraging the conservation of resources, the swift development, testing and introduction of these sorts of retro devices are necessary. We must add significant amounts of renewable energy to the north American power grid and the faster we do that the better. This is something that has been talked about and to a small extent toyed with, but very little has ever been done in reality. It is time for changes in this area and any idea or invention that pushes this along at a faster rate is truly priceless. If we are going to change our world for the better, it will have to happen in this way.

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