Solar panels miss forest for the trees

I enjoyed the July 16 article, “Whidbey Island group installs solar panels to harvest sun’s bounty.” Of special interest was the photo of solar panels mounted in what appears to be a field of canary grass. Like other temperate grasses, this species uses photosynthesis, the only solar-conversion process that has worked successfully without cost for several billion years.

Unlike solar panels, canary grass harvests sunlight in biomass form. Its uses range from inexpensive boiler fuel to chemical feedstocks to expensive medicinals to highly expensive fragrances. Photosynthesis also has useful byproducts: the oxygen we breathe and sequestered carbon. As an energy crop, canary grass has little cost, zero irrigation needs, perennial longevity, and a love of the cold, wet weather that has plagued conventional farming here in 2011. As “harvesting the sun” systems go, the placement of solar panels in a field of canary grass can be likened to a Model T Ford in a field of Ferraris.

Canary grass is being investigated locally as a temperate-climate substitute for “energy cane,” a massive form of tropical sugarcane. This work is at the Lowell Community Garden on lowland property of the late Elvin Anderson. The canary grass study process is the same that produced the energy cane concept in Puerto Rico. Results to date are encouraging. Final results will be presented in a two-day symposium commemorating Lowell’s 150th anniversary in 2013.

Alex G. Alexander

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