Woman crusades for solar energy

Register Reporter

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith concedes that her dream — to eventually see 10 percent of Kansans’ electricity come from solar energy — is particularly ambitious for what can literally be described as an army of one.
Smith notes that her organization, the Kansas Solar Electric Cooperatives, “is more of an idea at this point than anything.”
She remains the only member of the 4-year-old organization that was officially incorporated in April 2008.
She hopes that will change.
Smith, a Yates Center native who returned to her hometown about 10 years ago, will set up a booth at Saturday’s Yates Center Days celebration to tout the potential of solar building-integrated photovoltaics as a viable source of electricity.
Smith’s booth will feature a 3-foot-tall polycrystalline solar panel, capable of converting sunlight into 64 watts of electricity.
“There are still people who think solar energy is a farce,” she said. “It’s not a farce. It can be done.”
Smith has been working feverishly through years to build momentum toward seeing more buildings in the state powered by solar energy.

SMITH EXPLAINED how building-integrated photovoltaics, or BI-PV, works.
The key is the polycrystalline in the solar panel, which contains silicon, Smith said. When exposed to sunlight, the silicon releases electrons, creating electricity.
On its own, crystallized silicon is not a suitable conductor of electricity. But when impurities are added, such as boron or phosphorous, creating positive or negative charges, respectively, an electric current is formed.
Smith understands that in order to garner support — and more importantly raise funds — education is the key.
She hopes to build a mobile solar room exhibit, equipped with rooftop panels that provide power for a window air conditioner.
“That to me would be a perfect way to illustrate how effective solar energy is,” she said.
She concedes that solar power will never supplant the use of fossil fuels, such as coal. “Kansas has at best six ‘sun hours’ a day,” she said, when sunlight is directly bombarding the solar panels.
Solar energy would be at its most efficient on the warmest, brightest days of the year.
Not so coincidentally, those days usually require the public’s greatest need for electricity because of air conditioning.
“The truest benefit of solar power is that it would help meet peak demand,” she said. “Have you ever thought about how inefficient it is that in order to cool homes you have to burn coal?”

SMITH’S PLAN involves several phases, the first of which is to educate the public through her exhibit.
With the public’s support, Smith hopes to see at least 21 smaller electric cooperatives established in the state. Each cooperative would encompass five counties.
With those cooperatives in place, Smith and the Solar Electric Cooperatives could appeal for revenue bonds from the Kansas Corporation Commission, the linchpin to viable solar energy in Kansas.
“That would make my dream a reality,” she said.
She hopes to eventually have 1 million square feet of buildings in the state powered by solar energy, a hefty number until it’s broken down further.
“That’s about 10,000 square feet for each county,” she noted.
Her plans, if realized, would create a tangible benefit for Yates Center as well, with the construction of a $7 million fabrication plant that would produce the BI-PV panels.
Smith grew up in Yates Center, earning her high school diploma in 1972. She attended Allen County Community College and then Kansas State University before moving to Europe briefly as an architecture student.
Her funds dried up, however, and Smith moved first to Topeka and then to Portland, Ore.
From there, she switched majors to music and earned her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. She returned to Kansas and later earned her master’s degree at the University of Kansas in architecture.
From there, she moved throughout California as a consumer education specialist, photographer, author and solar electricity advocate.