Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Solar Panels Just "Eco-Bling?"

This article and the subsequent comments (ignore the usual contingent of off-topic jerks and their environmental straw men) has generated some very excellent discussion about one of the fundamental questions in green building today: is renewable energy or energy efficiency more important?

The answer is "both!", of course,(but then you could get into an argument about whether any of it is worth it) but that would be an answer that denies the practicalities and subtleties we encounter in the field and in the preconceptions of our customers.

I see the arguments going like this:

Energy efficiency is generally more cost effective than pretty much anything else having to do with energy.  Current incentives should focus on that, we should develop energy efficiency jobs and go out and weatherize everybody's house to cut or emissions because the amount of energy we simply waste is pretty mind boggling considering how costly energy use is to us.  Furthermore, the extremely generous tax credits we offer for solar and wind are a huge waste of the government's money, because all too often they get slapped on energy-hog buildings for sake of the "green cred" of the occupants and don't end up making much of a dent in actual energy use or carbon emissions.  You could say that solar panels are really just the ultimate form of "bling."

But energy efficiency just isn't easily understood, and is still more expensive than most homeowners can afford--plus once you start digging into old house, what you find that needs fixing can be never-ending.  The actual work of crawling through somebody's attic or crawlspace with a caulk gun is also especially miserable, dangerous, and temporary in nature, so we should keep in mind that the "green jobs revolution" we often hear touted is something of an idealization.  Fundamentally, energy efficiency is just not something that people care much about on their own.  They don't have the money, don't spend the time, don't understand the value and don't really care to learn.  Lots of groups have poured money and effort into turning this into a movement already, and have failed to deliver widespread results.*  You also can only get so far with energy efficiency without starting to ask for lifestyle changes, which in addition to being socialist and thus un-American is simply not going to happen.  People are so used to the "buy my power, whatever" paradigm that it really just makes sense that the place they get their power from should just be greener. 

Utilities, then, should be the ones doing green.  Large-scale solar farms, huge wind turbine projects, instead of new coal or new nuclear.  That's makes more sense than little isolated production by consumers because the model where the utility is the one taking on the financial burden of power production capital and everybody else just pays them is the one we're already doing, and one that makes the most economic sense anyway to most homeowners.

But utilities aren't doing solar energy at the rate that most people who want change would like. Government incentives for PV have help expand the market, put the solar folks in business and drive the manufacturing costs down by upping their economies of scale.  They have WORKED at doing that, and similar efforts globally have dropped the prices astoundingly in the past few months even more, partially because people besides utilities have been given a way to jump into making this shift happen.  Lower cost and lower cost, probably for a larger utility but for whoever buys it in the meantime, is the endgame here.  That's when a radical market shift toward more renewables could happen.

So we're back to the beginning again.

The nice thing about the link and the comments is that among the purely philisophical arguments, there are a handful of small solutions thrown in.  Things like the utility company requiring a home energy audit before agreeing to buy energy from the solar array you want to install, so that at least you'll have been exposed to energy efficiency information.  Things like shifting to energy bills that charge differential rates based on how much you consume.**  The piecemeal approach is really the only one that is going to happen in a marketplace with diverse opportunities and drives--so I'm all for the small policies that hack away at small differences.

*It is unfair to say that these programs have shown no results--some have actually been successful on a community level.  But the amount of work and money involved that helped make them successful is not easily sustainable in the current economic and political climate.

**Although this policy would be very effective at creating demand for energy efficiency, it is not a measure that should be taken likely because it stands to severely penalize lower middle class and working class families.  Cheap housing is typically cheap because it was constructed cheaply--and that means energy efficiency was not considered and these houses might use considerably more energy than they could have been built to use.  Yet if all you can afford to buy or rent is a cheaply built house, or a very old house with lots of issues, you are more likely to least be able to afford energy prices that jump sharply with higher levels of use.  However, leaving the system the way it is does nothing to stop the problem that pushes lower income buyers and renters into houses that end up costing MORE to operate in the first place.

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