29 December, 2009

Solar Energy And The Cheap Bastards

Over at good.is, they're looking into why solar energy is taking so long to become commonplace, and coming up with answers.  But they're missing the real issue.  We're apparently Cheap Bastards.

To use electricity, the world had to undergo several costly and resource-intensive paradigm shifts.  First there were localised wind or water powered grain mills etc, and work was brought to them and then distributed outwards, by horse and cart mainly.  That paradigm was brought crashing (and cost people a fortune in the process) when the steam engine meant you could site the mill nearer to the crop or input material.  There were still a lot of small mills that had to be built though.

Next, trains provided the means to move materials and products, and the game changed again.  (And cost the equivalent of trillions in putting in railway tracks and infrastructure around the world.)

Then electricity happened along, and suddenly you could burn the fuel in one place and use whatever part of the fuel you hadn't wasted in inefficiencies, at any other place.  It took another huge outpouring of resources and materials to run power everywhere.

The key thing in all of these transformations was that it cost a lot of money and resources.  Since money is such a driver in society, it cost a LOT, period, for people of generations past to adopt each new advance.

And now we're facing a similar infrastructure shift retooling for solar and wind energy (has to have built in storage and really requires new ways of doing things) and we're coming up as the Cheap Bastards of the millennium...  The problem is largely that everyone is promising that power will be cheaper - and it will, up to and including free.  But only once you've spent the money on making solar and wind power resilient enough to cope.  Thanks to being Cheap Bastards, and the power of advertising, all we're seeing is the word "CHEAP" in that picture...

What is actually needed is a massive redesign and retrofit of houses - use as much of the solar energy in it's "natural" state (at 12V - 24V - 48V or whatever your system outputs rather than upconverted to 240V,) and more than one way to store excess energy during the day for later use.  I suggest.  That one of the largest wastes of energy isn't in lighting (about 2% of your electric bill) or cooking (maybe 10%) but in heating and cooling your house, your food, and your water for showers etc.  It makes sense to use solar heat rather than solar electricity to heat a large quantity of water which you keep insulated underground under your house in cooler climates, or a heat pump design to chill water in a similar tank to cool your house in the warmer climates.

But it's going to take enormous infrastructure changes for this to start happening.  And we're loath to change the system - after all, the current one works fine - for something that may or may not end up paying for itself in our lifetimes.  We're all happy to be Cheap Bastards at the expense of our children's lifetimes.  Because that's when this technology will finally pay off, not in anything as overinflated as money, but in a liveable world for our grandkids and greatgrandkids.

Maybe in the new decade coming in a few days, make a personal decision to stop being a Cheap Bastard and instead realise that we've been paying for several generations to make the current state of affairs come to pass, and now need to pay our dues in turn to save what we have left.

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1 comment:

GooseBreeder said...

Never a truer word etc! Great post.

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