Being self-sufficient: Alternative power sources SRJC can turn to when the grid goes off


Illustration by Daniel Barba

Erik Jorgensen, Editor-at-Large

Santa Rosa Junior College could defend our electrical power grid from terrorist attacks while cutting the college’s operating costs.

Fox News’ coverage of last year’s sniper rifle attack on a power station near San Jose demonstrates our massive power grid’s vulnerability to isolated terrorist attacks. Whenever Fox News finds a new way to panic its viewers, I try to figure out who’s making money.

SRJC’s blackout last semester left people trapped in elevators for over an hour. Sooner or later we’ll feel another power outage, from a brief brownout to a full-on terrorist assault against our electrical freedoms. Unlike most problems, the best time to prepare for the unexpected is before it happens.

It is a scientific fact that electricity can be generated from sources besides fossil fuels. One of these sources is the sun, a magical being who circles our planet in its golden chariot. Photoelectric cells are intelligently designed to transform this tax-free light from the sun into electricity, and can operate for 20 years or more with little maintenance.

SRJC has room enough with flat roofs and large open parking lots to install hundreds of solar panels. While this may not be enough to power the entire school yet, it will bring the campus closer to self-sufficiency and reduce our reliance on the grid. SRJC could even acquire the solar panels at little or no cost to our college by applying for grants and community funding. Since SRJC offers certificates in solar photovoltaics, a solar power farm visible from Highway 101 would make a better advertisement than a billboard.

To power SRJC at night, gas turbines could be installed “upstream” of the equipment already burning natural gas, like water heaters. These gas turbines are like a jet engine bolted to a generator instead of an airplane wing, generating power directly. The “waste heat” can power a steam turbine to generate electricity and hot water. The hot air could heat a building or an oven, allowing SRJC’s amazing culinary program to be funded by its own bake sales.

Since SRJC also offers classes to make biofuel from vegetable oil, building power generators for campus use could become part of the curriculum. Imagine a campus where the same oil cooking the students’ food also powers their lights and computers. Our economic future depends on freeing ourselves from fossil fuels, and by expanding and promoting alternative energy projects, SRJC could help lead the way.

While generators and solar panels cost money, that alone should not be our limiting factor. There are people and companies eager to help us, like Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Green Fund invests in renewable energy research. With a little help, the SRJC Virgin Generators could make our campus a leader in energy innovation – the cherry on top of an amazing college.