When my wife and I built our home in 1985 we had no idea we would ultimately become our own power company selling electricity to the rest of the world. We did know that we wanted a home that was full of sunlight, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We wanted a home with modern conveniences. A home with a spacious deck overlooking Mill Creek. A home nestled up to the bluff behind us. The only question was how to achieve this goal at a cost we could afford. Our path to comfort and affordability comes through efficiency.
Amory Lovins, a physicist and energy efficiency guru coined a wonderful term – negawatts. Negawatts are the kilowatts of electricity you don’t need to buy because of efficiency. Better wall and roof insulation means a cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter home with less energy use. The same goes for energy saving double pane windows. Efficient lightbulbs such as compact fluorescents keeps your house well lit and use less energy. Shade trees, house eaves, and shower heads also matter but lets move on.
If the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location, then the three most important things about solar power (you were beginning to wonder if I would ever get there) are efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. The location of solar power is simple. The only requirement is access to the southern sky. Expensive land , cheap land, on a roof or on the ground, it doesn’t matter other than southern exposure. So why is energy efficiency so important? Because electricity generated by PhotoVoltaic (PV) panels is not cheap, at least on the front end. But equally important to what solar power does costs is what it doesn’t cost.
You don’t have to blast the top off a mountain in West Virginia, to get at the coal underneath. Miners in Kentucky don’t have to die in underground explosions to get at coal. No wells in Arkansas need be polluted or foundations cracked from hydro fracturing for natural gas. Children everywhere needn’t suffer asthma as a result of emissions from coal powered plants. No terrorist will obtain radioactive materials which could result from the nuclear power fuel cycle. All the above are called externalities which affect the cost of energy, but don’t show show up on your bill. These costs show up in health care costs, lives lost, homes destroyed, and taxes paid.
Our solar panels only have the direct cost of purchase and installation, no fuel costs, no externalities. They convert sunlight into electricity with about 15 per cent efficiency. Our array consists of forty panels mounted on a frame in a meadow covering about 450 square feet. It is a grid-tied system with a bidirectional meter. When the sun is shining excess energy production goes through our electric meter making it run backwards and into the electric lines for others to use. At night we draw power from the grid. Overall our system produces about a third again as much energy as we use, thus making us a clean, sustainable power plant for the rest of the world.
In the last analysis and not discounting for externalities our electricity is expensive. So why do we do it? To us externalities do matter. To us the health of children, the lives of coal miners and the preservation of family home sites matter. Plain and simple, it is the right thing to do.