There is no one reason to go solar. People are attracted to different aspects. Even individuals usually have a variety of motivations for their decision to install PV panels.
I talked with a woman last week who already had the panels up and was just waiting for her utility company to come out and replace the old style meter with a new bi-directional one. Her enthusiasm for the project was so strong that at one point she felt compelled to swear she wasn’t a shill for the solar industry.
But when I asked why she and her husband were taking this leap into solar, the silence that followed went on for so long that I thought we had been disconnected. When she finally answered, it sounded like a different person. Her tone was meek and apologetic; her voice barely audible.
“I’d like to say it was just because I care about the environment,” she answered, “but it was mostly…about the money.”
Another pause, and then: “We wanted to lower our electric bill.” It was the voice of a defendant breaking down on a witness stand, admitting that, “Yes, yes, I did it. I confess!
Well, who doesn’t want to lower their electric bills? Isn’t that how a market economy is supposed to work?
She hurried to add, though, that the couple also cared about the environment. If they hadn’t been concerned about climate change, she said, they probably would not have made the change.
Which begs a question: Given the grave consequences of climate change, if most people need a combination of economic and social/ethical factors to go solar, how will that happen?
One hint comes from the conversation above. We’ve learned a lot in a just a few decades about the environmental costs of generating electrical power. These costs, however, aren’t reflected in the price of electricity. The problem isn’t new. The price of electricity generated by burning coal didn’t include the 30,000 early deaths from heart and respiratory diseases caused by coal-fired power plants in 1999 alone.
Some blame the “invisible hand” of the marketplace for failing to internalize these costs. That’s the easy way out. It’s not the fault of some vague and unaccountable economic principle. It’s not even an economic failure. It’s a question of political will. In the immortal words of Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. We collectively allowed government regulators to turn a blind eye, protecting energy companies from the rigors of the marketplace.
And yet, the couple described above were able to install solar panels. How? Because they didn’t have to buy them; they lease the solar power system. The monthly cost of the lease combined with their now-reduced electrical bill comes to less than what they had been paying for power.
The Missing Ingredient
But there’s one more component needed. The solar company that installed and owns the PV array wouldn’t earn enough from leasing alone to make this system profitable. Not while the government subsidized their coal-burning competitors by forcing downwind communities and taxpayers to bare the full cost of burning coal. (And this is without factoring in climate change — the biggest cost of all.)
The missing ingredient came first from state governments that decided it was time to level the playing field for all forms of energy.