Nature Notes: An Untapped Resource

Many forms of life are able to adjust their body temperatures to the ambient temperature

As our planet continues to heat up and sea level rises commensurately due to melting glacial water, we think about ways to survive, comfortably if possible, and one of these ways is to switch from gasoline and coal to forms of energy production that don’t require the burning of carbon-derived materials. We are making progress, but we have a long, long way to go.

Many forms of life are able to adjust their body temperatures to the ambient temperature. Hummingbirds, for one, don’t need to maintain a constant consistent high temperature of over 100 degrees. Come the setting of the sun and a concomitant decrease in activity and a hummingbird’s internal temperature drops with the temperature around it. There may be a yoga-like exercise that would enable us humans, after a long period of training, to reduce our temperature as the hummingbird can, but we don’t want to catch our death of cold while we work to achieve such ability.

Let’s face it. We are about as homeothermic as any organism can be: We don’t like it either too hot or too cold. Ever since a caveman shed all of his hair and rubbed two sticks together to make the first fire thousands of years ago, we have been averse to being cold. Burning fossil fuels keeps us warm.

It is only in the last centnury and a half, particularly so after the invention of the electric lightbulb and reciprocating engine, that the modern human has begun to look at ways not dependent upon the oxidation of carbon to produce heat, light, radio waves, transportation, and a host of other modern processes by which we measure progress.

The first carbonless method applied worldwide more than a century ago to produce electricity was the earthen dam. Hydroelectric dams are still being built, not so much here in America, but in Asia and Africa, to name two continents where dams are still in fashion. However, when you dam a river for the purposes of producing power, you unleash a bunch of problems: reduced flow downstream; stopping fish migration, as with salmon in the Pacific Northwest; dam failures and catastrophic release of floodwater, and so on. If it weren’t for a system of dams installed in rivers around New York City providing water for washing, drinking, and watering, its residents would be drinking contaminated local water and the city would become much less populous than it is today.

But we are running out of time, out of clean natural resources. We will soon be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. We don’t have a lot of leisure time to act and it will be curtains, and if not curtains, miserable lives at best. So we are acting, not as quickly as we should, but at least we are acting to reverse the tide of pending misery. We have several choices. Some of those not based on carbon are proven to be effective. Others, such as smashing atoms and making hydrogen fuel cells, are problematic, either because they are hazardous or too complicated to mass manufacture and mass distribute.

The ones that work the best and are the most promising have been around for a long time, but have only recently been tapped as we realize that the old carbon-based forms can only lead to ultimate ruin. The new ones are as old as the sun, as old as the wind, as old as the core below us. They are solar, wind, and geothermal power.

We’ve known for more than a century or two that the water underneath our feet, in other words groundwater, is quite a bit warmer than the surface waters that fill our lakes and ponds and run in our rivers and streams. But it is only within this millennium that we are beginning to develop this energy source. To wit, the forward-looking Bridgehampton School will be getting much of its heat from groundwater coursing through heat pumps. There are several residences and other buildings on Long Island taking advantage of the heat below, which rarely falls below 50 degrees.

Harnessing wind to produce electrical energy has only been around for half a century or so, but it is now accounting for more than 4 percent of the electricity produced globally. Wind turbines have been around for hundreds of years, not for producing electricity but for milling grain. There is an operational mill in Water Mill. Solar production of electricity around the world approaches 2 percent, but is increasing at a faster pace than wind-power electricity. It is easier to equip individual homes with solar panels than with wind turbines.

On the other hand, wind turbines kill birds, bats, and butterflies, to name a major drawback of their use, while solar panels on rooftops kill very few organisms, almost none. Putting wind turbines out in the ocean may change the ecology of fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Solar panels on roofs have yet to produce a noticeable impact on birds or other organisms. Geothermal power may be the least harmful to nature of all three. We will have to watch as it becomes more popular.

We have three operational wind turbines in East Hampton along or near Long Lane, not far from East Hampton High School. We also have quite a few homes with solar panels in East Hampton and Southampton Towns. One owner of a house with solar panels is Tom Talmage, the East Hampton Town engineer, who lives across from the high school. For 13 or so years his panels have been producing electricity. When they are in operation, when it is sunny and in the warmer months of the year, they actually contribute more electrical power to the PSEG grid than they take in. As far as energy costs go, Tom says he almost breaks even.

What is apparent, however, when one uses that wonderful computer application Google Maps, is that there is a paucity of buildings on the South Fork equipped with solar panels. Some of these buildings are expansive. The storetops in the Bridgehampton Commons mall total about 200,000 square feet. If provided with modern solar panels, the Commons could not only provide enough electricity to power all of its operations, but could power another 1,000 or so houses that are now on the PSEG grid. A few South Fork commercial and public buildings do have solar panels. One private company building, the Buzz Chew Chevrolet dealership on County Road 39 in Southampton has many solar panels that can be easily observed on Google Maps. On the other hand, on the same Google Map, one sees not a single one on the roofs of the other three dealerships in close proximity. Granted, some of those images may be a few years old. 

Among the municipal and institutional buildings on the South Fork with solar panels, you can spot Southampton Village’s police station and public works building, Southampton High School, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike), the East Hampton Village Emergency Services Building, the Amagansett Firehouse (where there is also a wind turbine), and Springs School. The roofs on these buildings represent only a very small percentage of the commercial and public building roof space available for solarization. Almost none of the very large local estate homes in the area have solar panels. If you have the money to pay $200 or $400 or more a month for PSEG electricity from the grid, why bother? 

But we should bother, shouldn’t we? Interestingly, there are no laws in the local zoning codes requiring solar or wind power installations. It seems that considerations concerning electrical power are completely up to the New York Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority, and PSEG.

Robert Carbone, a spokesman for one of Long Island’s many solar panel companies, SuNation, said that the firm has been doing a brisk solar business, not withstanding the threat of Trump tariffs on solar panels imported from China. SuNation installed solar panels on three of the South Fork buildings mentioned above.

To go back to the Tom Talmage solar roof across from the high school, Tom said the company that installed the panels came back during the first year or two to check how they were operating. Among other devices, Tom has an expensive air-conditioning system because of an asthmatic condition. He says that it has been working well all these years on the electricity provided by his solarized roof.