My son bought a little device that has a solar panel on it, and generates enough electricity to charge it’s internal battery which in turn can charge an iPod or other small electronic device.
Seems ok at first blush. But of course, as an earnest person on Treehugger.com observed, the total energy benefit from this device is probably negative. The cost of production, shipping, and so on is around $30 (plus shipping). The amount of electricity used to charge an iPod is fantastically small — we use a little more than $100 of electricity each month, and I am thinking the vast majority goes to lighting, the fridge, dryer, and various other significant appliances. Actually getting $40 in electrical savings from this device would take eons.
He thought about it
However, my son did something important. He thought.
He considered the device, he observed it, he found it somehow unsatisfying. He asked about getting solar panels on our house, which after some investigation and math, I determined would cost more than $8,000 for one model, before installation, and which would save us about $20/month. This solar panel would pay for itself in about 400 months. Oh, and this doesn’t count the present value of money (which makes it a worse deal), but neither does it account for an expected increase in energy cost (which may make it a better deal), nor does it count a rather substantial energy tax credit which may make it a significantly better deal.
Not economically justifiable
But there’s more going on here: the reality is that there are many non-economically justifiable ways to reduce energy use. Our Priuses are probably a big one. Not sure about TerraPass at this point. Solar panels on a house don’t pass the money test. And the little iPod charger doesn’t, either.
However, they do something else: they raise awareness of the possibility of saving energy. Many, many people have ridden in my Prius and raised an eyebrow, calculating that their car gets at least 1/2 the mileage of mine. They don’t calculate the cost to them, perhaps. If they did, they would do math like 12,000 miles per year at 25 MPG and $3.00/gallon = $1,400 per year for their car, more like $700 per year for mine, net $700 savings per year. Not bad, but perhaps not worth the “sacrifice”. But thinking about using 1/2 the gasoline does make them think, because they realize there’s more to this whole thing than pure costs.
Dollars do not equal energy
In fact, the problem is, nothing regarding energy use or global warming can really be translated into dollar costs. If we actually could measure (and did measure) the costs associated not just with production and delivery of energy, but also the costs we have not yet borne (hurricanes, flooding, social disruption, costs associated with creating better energy systems, and on, and on) — if we measured these costs, we might feel a lot better about spending money today that can’t be cost-justified.
So perhaps our responsibility as aware people is to spread this awareness. If we do, people may come to understand that the almighty dollar does not currently take account of the cost of energy. Not all energy is created equal — some harmless (solar, wind) and some is terrible (coal), yet they each cost the same in kilowatt hours.
Spread the word: it’s about more than dollars
Until our country and world learns to account for the complete cost of energy (and for that matter, everything else), those of us who are aware may need to spend more money in an attempt to proselytize, and spread the good word. So to my son: good job! And can I possibly justify spending $8,000 and more on a solar panel? Yes, yes I can.