Former EPA Administrator Reilly goes solar

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When George HW Bush promised to be the “environmental president,” few took the claim seriously. It was written off as campaign rhetoric, especially untrustworthy because it came from the vice president of the most anti-environmental administration since “the environment” was born as a social movement in the 1960s.

But after Bush won the White House in November 1988, he surprised nearly everyone with his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Bush picked a bona fide environmentalist, the head of the World Wildlife Fund, William K. Reilly, a soft-spoken but sharp negotiator who was 49-years-old but looked at least a decade younger.

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William Reilly in 1989

“We had a very good first two years,” Reilly says. But then came the preparations for the 1992 election, and the conservatives in the administration who had always seen Reilly (and all environmentalists) as a political liability, made sure that little was done to upset the “regulated community,” i.e, businesses that polluted and developers that destroyed whole ecosystems.

A low point came during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle’s office sabotaged Reilly’s negotiations on a biodiversity treaty, which was supposed to be a showcase achievement of the summit.

Others, besides Quayle, were openly hostile to any environmental initiatives.

“Once, budget director Richard Darmin and I were standing outside of the Oval Office,” recalls Reilly, “and Darmin said in a loud voice, ‘The problem is we’ve got an environmentalist heading the EPA, and, worse, we have an environmentalist in there,’ and he pointed to the Oval Office.”

Life after EPA

Reilly returned to the WWF as the Bush administration headed into its last days in 1992. Since that time Reilly has continued working on environmental issues. In late 2006, Reilly and his wife Elizabeth decided to use solar energy to power a pump on their land in the heart of the Sonoma wine country, 70 miles north of San Francisco.

Pump array

Pump array

As Reilly tells it, the project started out small and ended with the family “going all out.”

The array for the pump consists of four 65 watt Kyocera PV panels, and a tracking mechanism that keeps the panels aligned with the sun throughout the day.

Later, they added a passive solar heating system for their swimming pool. And, finally, the Reillys installed 36 solar panels on their barn. The panels are made by Sharp and each one is rated to produce 208 watts of electricity.

I asked Reilly what he paid on his most recent utility bill.

“For electricty,” he answered, “nothing.”

During the summer, the meter runs backwards as their solar generated excess capacity feeds back into the grid, powering other homes and earning credits for the Reillys on their future electric bills.

“We could have gotten entirely off the grid, if we had wanted,” says Reilly. “But, I didn’t want to do that. I like the idea of producing power and feeding it back into the system.” Every watt sent back onto the grid is one watt less that needs to be produced by a non-renewable and polluting source.

Now that solar power supplies all (or nearly all) his family’s electricity, Reilly is focused on future solar developments.

“I like the idea of producing power and feeding it back into the system.”

“Eventually,” he predicts, “it’s all going to be thin-film solar power.”

That’s one of three factors that Reilly believes need to fall into place for solar to take off in a massive way. Thin-film, because it’s cheaper to manufacture, easier to install and gathers diffused and scattered light far better than traditional silicon panels do.

Factor two: increased storage capacity. Unlike it’s fossil fuel rivals, solar panels only generate electricity when the sun is out — roughly half of each day. But progress is being made in battery storage of solar electricity, and also in storing the heat itself in large amounts of molten salt, heat that is used to boil water, turn a turbine and generate electricity.

Last, says Reilly, “the price of fossil fuels is going to play a large role” in making solar a more attractive option.

Of the three, it’s that last one that Reilly calls a sure thing.

“I do think all three factors are going to happen, though,” he says. “We’re going to get there, one way or another.”

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