Sound Off: Whidbey needs its own power

All this biomass dropping out of our trees and onto our power lines leaves me wondering where we’re going next for green energy. I’ll bet the windfall over Whidbey this winter could heat and light a lot of homes.

This is stored solar energy given to us by Mother Nature, not pillaged unceremoniously from her as is our usual practice, although us humans seem to be taking over this one too, considering all the trees that are hastily being cut around houses before the next big storm. We have suddenly increased our harvest of logs and biomass fuel, yet we don’t yet have the technology in place to add this biomass energy to the island power grid.

During our several power outages we heard many two-stroke engines powering generators when some of us had been looking forward to a quiet candlelit day-out-of-power vacation. How many of these generators are now on Whidbey Island, and how many more will be here next year, ready to explode into a vibrating cacophony of energy conversion to serve our power needs should our electric artery be cut? No doubt, having backup power is a great idea when you’ve got a freezer full of thawing food, no water and a large tree ripping you off the grid.

This is one of many reasons why distributed power is the wave of the future, where every household or neighborhood co-generates their own power and heat and income much cleaner and more efficient than current systems. This arrangement decentralizes and redistributes the power grid so that we aren’t as vulnerable to major power line damage and utility rate increases. As in politics, grassroots power generation is the way to go. Picture hydrogen fuel cell cars feeding the grid, tidal current power generating the hydrogen, many small local solar, wind and biomass energy sources.

But these oil-and-gas-spewing two-stroke engines are very inefficient sources of power, and they pump out some really noxious exhaust along with the obnoxious noise. According to the Clean Air Partnership, studies show a conventional gasoline lawnmower pollutes as much in an hour as 40 new cars, and of much greater toxicity to health. To put this into perspective, automobile emissions are nearly 1,000 times lower, even though each automobile on the road is operated up to 1,000 times longer than each two-stroke engine. The same is true of these “emergency generators” and most marine outboard motors (which have much more disastrous effects on marine ecology).

Large diesel generators are not much better, and are looming air-pollution monsters as they proliferate exponentially around the globe, especially in developing countries. Cleaner engines are being developed, and EPA has tightened the two-stroke engine emission limit in several significant areas last year, but is this old technology what we want to invest our future in?

Shouldn’t we island folk find out what our options really are and proactively empower our future?