Local pioneers are America at its best

September 04, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |
  • Rowland

I speak out of love, but at first blush, solar panels on Ernst Country Market would seem like WiFi on a Victrola. What will we see next, Sam Drucker on Facebook? But other local businesses might notice this fact: Ernst Market has been around since 1945; businesses don’t last for 65 years by making dumb moves.

Greg Ernst said he agonized over leaping into such a large project involving a fledgling technology. I’m sure a lot of visionaries have had the same feelings about a lot of endeavors over the years. But it’s the ones who take chances who usually come out ahead.

In fact, this is America at its best. While our business and political leaders at the top of the ladder fret and fuss over energy policy and sit around making TV commercials about how blessed we are to have such wonderful and generous oil companies to meet our energy needs, individuals and small-business owners are dictating our future from the bottom rung up.

Ernst says his solar panels will generate one-fifth of his shop’s energy, or about the amount that the average home would use in a day. One-fifth at a small butcher shop and grocery might not seem earth-moving until we take a step back and consider what advantages our nation might have if it could get one-fifth of its total energy from up above, not down below.

That would be a savings of nearly 4 million barrels of oil a day.

That laughter you hear coming out of the board room of Exxon-Mobil just got a little more nervous. How many small-business folks are looking around the county and seeing solar panels going up at nuts-and-bolts establishments like Ernst Market and the Smile Design Centre and Boonsboro Pharmacy?

And what might they be thinking, especially if they are a competitor? After these businesses pay off their solar-panel investment in five to 10 years, they are going to be getting a goodly chunk of their energy for free. In an age of razor-thin bottom lines, that matters.

The future of energy, some have claimed, is not going to be in the monolithic coal-fired generators; it’s going to be in small dynamos or renewables serving businesses and subdivisions — and as we have seen, in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., the courthouse itself. Not only does that take pressure off of the large generating plants, it also takes pressure off the acutely overloaded energy grid that everyone was in such a panic over in 2003, but seems to have forgotten about since.

So what could muck up this rosy scenario? The usual suspects.

Democrats have left the door open for justifiable criticism in Maryland and nationally as they try to artificially push solar faster than the market wants. Three solar plants, including Solyndra, a darling of the Obama administration, closed in August, victimized by cheaper imports from China. In Maryland, the O’Malley administration has, too, appeared too cozy for comfort with the company planning a large solar project near the state prisons south of Hagerstown.

And private interests will always be quick to smell a buck. A little federal-subsidy push to get solar going is proper and justified. But when those “little pushes” grow into the millions on millions of dollars, there will be those who will make a one-time grab for the subsidy, caring little what happens to the project in the long run.

Writing in The Herald-Mail a couple of weeks ago, Washington County Extension Agent Jeff Semler made a good point about the prison project: The purpose of a solar farm is somewhat defeated by the army of high-polluting, two-cycle string trimmers it would take to keep 200 acres or so trim. So why not build the panels high enough that sheep can be grazed underneath? That’s a great, innovative thought.

Will anyone listen? Whether they do or not will tell us a lot about the interests developing this project.

In one way, the less said about solar energy the better — let it grow organically without ham-handed interference from big government and big corporations. There will be time enough for them to wade in with their usual grace once small America has performed the necessary pioneering.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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