Turning to the Sun for Power

Sunset, November 1988 | Go to article overview

Turning to the Sun for Power


They follow the sun like giant sunflowers, shifting almost imperceptibly from dawn until dusk. Quietly and cleanly producing power, nearly 800 towering, computer-driven trackers stretch across the lonely Carrisa Plains, along State Highway 58 northeast of San Luis Obispo, California.

Spread across each tracker's Tapis blue face are thousands of photovoltaic cells, each one about the size of a playing card. The cells, made of chemically altered silicon, convert the area's abundant sunlight into thousands of kilowatts of electricity. At maximum output, each tracker can power roughly three houses. Run by Arco Solar, this is just one of several photovoltaic (PV) facilities in the West's sun-drenched locales, such as Phoenix and San Diego. And this month, an 86-acre research and development facility in Davis, California, will begin operation. Its purpose: to assess the cost-effectiveness and reliability of PV cells as major commercial sources of electricity.

Why this jolt of interest, when we seem to have changed our pre-oil embargo ways by cutting energy use significantly? (Consumption has inched up 2 to 3 percent a year since 1973; from the mid-'5Os until then, it rose about 7 percent annually.) Simple: PV cells are an environmentally sound source of energy. …

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