Nature’s notebook

Harness solar power the old-fashioned way

Sheets dry on a clothesline in the Uwharries. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, North Carolina ranks third in the nation in the amount of installed solar capacity, more than all other Southeastern states combined. At last count, 188 solar companies employed 6,000 people in our state. As a recent article in the Montgomery Herald noted, there’s now a 25-megawatt solar farm near Biscoe that covers 120 acres, making it one of the largest in the state. With the state tax credit for solar and other forms of renewable energy due to sunset at the end of this year, the pace of building utility-scale projects or installing roof-top panels on homes or businesses will likely stall.

Even so, it’s still possible for the average person to take advantage of solar energy without massive cash outlays for expensive equipment. All it takes is a length of wire or rope. A clothesline is a tried and true method for harnessing the power of the sun – and for that matter, the wind. No panels or turbines required. A clothesline festooned with towels and T-shirts is perhaps the simplest expression of solar energy. The sun acts directly on the clothes – no intermediary needed to convert the rays into electricity to run a dryer, an appliance that accounts for roughly 6 percent of the typical home’s energy consumption.

I’d be reluctant to give up my dryer entirely, but I do like having the option to use a clothesline or a drying rack. In winter, it’s a pleasure to pull warm clothes from the dryer, but in summer the heat is a burden – on me and my air conditioner.  Plus, I hate to contribute to the smoggy haze that sometimes obscures the Charlotte skyline. Hanging clothes out to dry takes a little more time and effort, but it’s gentler on fabric – dryer lint is the result of fibers breaking down as items rub together – and sunlight brightens whites without the need for bleach.

Homeowner association restrictions have created a backlash known as the Right to Dry movement.

While our house was under renovation, we lived in a high-rise apartment building with a roof-top pool. When warm weather hit, people started draping wet towels over the rails of their balconies.  Management quickly sent out a notice reminding residents there was a policy against hanging clothes outside. Even in the suburbs, where people have private backyards, many homeowner associations (HOAs) have covenants forbidding clotheslines, on the grounds they are unsightly and bring down property values. Those restrictions have created a backlash known as the Right to Dry movement, which seems to be having a political impact. California recently joined Florida and a handful of other states in passing laws that override those HOA restrictions. According to the Sightline Institute several states – including North Carolina – have existing laws on the books that skirt the prohibition on clotheslines.

In the Uwharries, we’re free to do as we please, but several years ago Mama was forced to take down the clothesline she’d had since I was a baby.  No, the good citizens of Ophir haven’t started an HOA. It was the birds she’d attracted with her nearby feeders. All too often, when she went to gather her clothes, they weren’t clean anymore. She replaced the line with a retractable model protected – and discreetly hidden – on her screened porch.  Now she hangs out clothes when it suits her, but she still recalls the days when we didn’t have the means for a dryer or disposable diapers.  She had no choice but hang my diapers out to dry.  On frigid days, she claims, they froze in solid sheets as she pinned them to the wire. 

My husband’s family in England has the most extraordinary commitment to clotheslines I’ve ever encountered. We once spent three weeks on their farm in Devon, and I kid you not, it rained every day. Between the showers, his aunt would race to the line with a load of wet clothes. Even if the sun wasn’t shining, she took advantage of the stiff breeze off the moor. They’re a hearty lot, and their electricity is exorbitantly expensive. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that despite living in the hot and sunny South where conditions are perfect for a clothesline, I usually succumb to the convenience of my dryer.  Sometimes you just don’t want to air your dirty laundry.

Clothes drying in the wind on a cloudy day in Devon, England. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom