Dark Days Solar Lights

The Winter Solstice has passed. That makes it sound like something that was voted on, but the solstice is astronomical, not political. Whidbey Island sits far enough north for the daylight to be short enough to fit between the morning and evening commutes. A bit farther south the effect isn’t as obvious. A bit farther north and winter Whidbey days can seem long and luxurious, just ask some of the folks recently from Alaska. This solstice was different. It set records.

Friday, December 20th, set Seattle’s record for the darkest day. Three things made it happen: the solstice, and the Pineapple Express‘ cloud cover and the rain falling from it. Friday and Saturday saw less than 3% of the sunshine the area gets in the summer. The region’s reputation for rain is just a proxy for the real culprit for some people’s seasonal sadness. Grey skies definitely play a role.

Despite the grey,

“Whidbey has more solar energy installations per capita than the rest of Washington” – Whidbey News-Times

Pick your reason for so many solar cells on the island: backup power, planet protection, novelty, distrust of utility companies, or just because you can. While some laugh at those weak few watts, watch the power go out and see how valuable they become. Power that internet router. Keep a few lights on. Recharge the crowd of batteries that sustain so many electronic devices. There’s even enough business to grow a solar and wind energy equipment supplier. (Whidbey Sun & Wind)

Solar energy systems for houses have moved from radical and expensive, to uncommon buy not unexpected. A decade ago a question about a solar installation was probably met with curiosity or dismissive commentary. Now, the questions are more practical: how much did it cost, how much do you get, how long did it take, how can I get it done?

Another simple measure of the use of those few photons that get through are the ubiquitous solar lights edging driveways and walkways. Soak up whatever sunshine happens by, then couple it with amazingly energy efficient LED lights that squeeze the photons back out for hours. Add motion sensor switches and those lights may make it through the nights.

As impressive as the power can be, don’t expect phenomenal holiday lights shows to work off such systems. Each light might be efficient, but multiply by a thousand and – well – maybe it will work for an hour or so. For that, and for more pragmatic reasons, almost all of the island stays attached to the grid. Thanks to all of that rain and our impressive mountains, much of the non-solar power is coming from hydro-electric dams that don’t mind working when the sunshine is on the other side of the planet – or above those persistent clouds.

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