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How solar energy can win. May 1, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Someone recently sent our friend Ben an e-mail about the rising gas prices—now just under $4 here and projected to hit $5 this summer—and how President Obama had said, several years ago, that he hoped gas prices would hit $10 a gallon so they’d match European gas prices. Did President Obama really say that, or was this just yet another blast of pre-Presidential campaign rhetoric from the other side?

Our friend Ben has no clue. But more to the point, what would make anyone say such a thing?! Are they an anarchist, attempting to destroy America? Or, say, a major owner of oil futures? According to this e-mail article, the reason in President Obama’s case was that he supposedly felt that the only way to persuade the average American to accept alternative energy was to make conventional energy unaffordable.

Again, let our friend Ben stress that I have no idea if this attribution is true or false. But in either case, the reasoning behind it is false. The reasons alternative energy is not widely embraced by Americans are that a) it’s still much more expensive to implement than “conventional” forms of energy; b) it requires a new and still much more interactive technology, requiring new training and often, at this point, active participation on the homeowner’s part; and c) for every advance in alternative technology, there are extremists among the various environmental factions screaming that this development is bad for the environment.

The answer to all this is simple and historically proven, and our friend Ben will get to it in a moment. But first, let me say outright that in a recession, when the price of every single commodity rises or falls based on the price of gas, raising gas prices so they’re competitive with the current price of alternative energy is not the answer. It’s the exact wrong answer. It punishes people who are already suffering, stretched to the limit just to make ends meet.

Let’s digress for a moment with a case study: Silence Dogood and I would love to install solar panels, a wind turbine, and a composting toilet here at Hawk’s Haven, but we can’t even afford conventional sources of energy, much less alternative energy. We live out in the country, where there are no commuter transport options like buses or trains. We could walk or bike to exactly three places: a gas station at the foot of our road; a chocolate factory across the highway; or a winery a couple of streets away. None of these are exactly essential stops. Otherwise, we have to drive our little car wherever we go.

Still, we do everything we can to reduce our energy use. We keep the thermostat at 50 degrees, freezing us to death three seasons of the year. We have a single window air conditioner, and try to use it only when the heat and humidity become unbearable, typically less than a month total each year. We have no microwave, dishwasher, or other extraneous appliance. We dry our clothes on racks.

We try to raise as much of our food as possible. We have a well and septic system. We both work from home, so we don’t have a daily commute. We try to consolidate our car-based chores so we can do as many as possible in a single trip. We own a used car and a used house, and buy all our furniture, clothing, books, DVDs, CDs, etc. used. We eat homemade meals and enjoy home-based entertainments rather than traveling for them. When we do spend money on food and other goods, we make a point of patronizing local farmers’ markets, craftspeople, and etc., putting our scant supply of money into the local economy rather than sending it across the country or abroad. And of course, we’re lifetime organic gardeners, using no petroleum-based fertilizers or toxic chemicals on our yard or gardens, and recycling all organic food and landscape wastes on-site rather than sending them to landfills.

We also believe in choosing to actively reuse rather than waste. Buying “the latest” whatever strikes us as insane. We buy a used car we really like, then use it until it’s unrevivable. Ditto our clothes. Silence cooks extra food for subsequent meals so we can simply reheat when possible rather than wasting fuel cooking from scratch every day. If the food is good (which it is), it’s good for several meals. We simply don’t see the need for new styles, new furniture, new whatever while we still enjoy our carefully chosen old ones.

We’re obviously on the passive rather than active side of energy conservation and community support. If we had more money or lived in a more urban area, there’s much more we could do to actively promote alternative energy and community vibrancy. Joining an organic CSA and a food co-op, walking or taking public transport or carpooling everywhere, living in communal housing, and volunteering are just a few of the possibilities.

But let’s get back to the larger issues, and how technological changes have historically come to be accepted and implemented. The answer is staggeringly obvious: To make them trendy, desirable, popular, coveted—and easier to operate. No new technology was ever spread instantly to the masses. All of them started out, like today’s alternative energy, as expensive, exclusive, and (for the time) outrageously high-tech. They only became popular when they were adopted by the rich and influential.

Gaslight versus fire- and candlelight. Automobiles versus carriages. Electric lights versus gaslights. Telephones versus mail and telegrams. Gas and electric stoves versus woodstoves. The list goes on and on. In each case, the new technology was at first much more expensive than the old. Typically, it required learning something new: How to crank and drive a car, how to dial a telephone. For the general population, a horse-and-carriage or candles or kerosene lanterns were perfectly serviceable, thank you.

But the new, posh technology that the stylish rich were adopting still held a certain sway over everyone. And the money the rich were pouring into the new tech made it possible to eventually create models that everyone could afford, and simplified the technical aspects so even the most tech-averse could operate them. You could drive a car or talk on a telephone just like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert! Gasp.

This is the path President Obama and all other advocates of renewable energy should be pusuing: Making it trendy for the Brangelinas, the Lindsay Lohans and Kardashians, the Wills and Kates, and yes, the Donald Trumps and Warren Buffets to adopt them. Only then—at least historically—is there a precedent for the general public to take to them in turn.

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