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The Cruel Irony Of Green Energy

June 29, 2016

My city has a water problem. We have two sets of water pipes in our city. One set has the culinary water. The clean water that we use for cooking and bathing and washing and drinking. And then we have the secondary water. Secondary water is untreated. Not fit to drink. But, it’s great for our lawns and gardens. In addition to the “potableness” of the water, there is one other big difference: the cost. Unlike culinary water, secondary water is free. 

Not just cheap, or discounted. It literally is “use all you want” free. And that’s the problem. What’s the point of conserving what’s free? 

Did I mention I live in a desert state? Water is a pretty important resource. We never have enough of it. We all agree that it should be conserved. And therein lies the irony. 

I’m putting solar panels on my roof this summer. Well, I’m not doing it. Some nice guys with a big truck will show up next week and put panels on my roof. At which point I will start using the power of the sun to power my house. Economically, it’s pretty much a break even investment for the first couple of years. After that, assuming the utility rates continue to increase, I start to get a greater return on investment. The payoff on the loan is 10 years. I think the break even point is about 7 years. 

Of course, if the sun goes out, I’ve totally wasted my money!

Solar panels do not allow me to go “off grid.” In fact, our nation’s fascination with alternative energy, especially wind and solar will never be much more than a supplement to traditional energy until we solve the storage problem. We can’t store energy. Not really. So, after I become a solar power plant, any energy I don’t immediately consume will be pushed back on the grid and my utility company, Rocky Mountain Power, will give me a credit for my extra watts. Later, like after the sun goes down, I will pull power from the grid. And in the winter when the sun isn’t out as much, or it’s stuck behind a cloud that is dumping some of the greatest snow on earth on my house, I’ll be able to pull electricity from the grid. 

To cut my link to the utility company would require a set of batteries in my garage. And that’s currently full of important stuff like skateboards, boxes of Christmas ornaments and my shop tools. 

Anyway, as we’ve considered the impending installation, I realized that I will be gaining relief from the utility company, but I will be giving up a great teaching moment for my children. 

The guy who sold us the solar system did some calculations based on our energy usage for the past year. He recommended enough panels to meet our current needs. That means that I’m going to essentially be energy neutral; generating as much as I consume. And, discounting the cost of the panels, which are a fixed cost, my variable costs for energy are zero. It’s free. And why conserve what’s free? 

Today, when my kids leave their light on, or they hang the doors open while the air conditioner is running I can fall back on the “it’s wrong because you are wasting energy.” After my panels are put in place, I lose that argument. My children will learn that there is no value in conserving. And their eschewing of conservation will be because we equipped our house with clean energy. 

Just as our city planners have a difficult time convincing people that the “free” water needs to be conserved, I have to convince my kids that we still need conserve when the electricity is free. 

Perhaps it won’t matter. Perhaps energy, like wifi will become cheap enough that it will be essentially free. We could build entire buildings with solar panels on the outside and perhaps make them, like Tony Stark’s headquarters, completely energy independent. It’s a few years away, but it’s an intriguing possibility. 

In the mean time, my kids are going to learn that conservationism means never having to conserve: a cruel irony, indeed. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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4 Comments
  1. Hmm, incorrect analysis in conservation is a common flaw, Rod. Consider:
    Your kids leave the a dozen 60 watt lights on, their X box, and let’s not forget all that TV gear that is horribly energy expensive for 10 hours a day. In round numbers that’s 1.5 KW x 10 hours, or 15 KWh. Almost enough to charge my car for the daily commute. (Yes, I have an electric. Great fun and very efficient in Seattle area traffic.) Dunno what you pay for electricity, but let’s say it’s like mine which is $.11/KWh. If you were ‘energy neutral’ with the initial calculations the increased use from waste costs $1.65 per day, or $602 per year. Even if you had a net neutral energy footprint with the higher use, assuming your utility company pays 1/2 the sale price for energy you return to the grid you lose the opportunity to earn $301 per year.

    You can use this analysis to show that cost/benefit analysis are not always as simple as they seem, and what economists call hidden costs and benefits. You can even bring in the concept of sunk costs (you have already invested in the solar panels and hardware) for making business decisions. Then remind them that the amount of CO2 you are NOT generating helps keep that lovely snow around, and might even return some of it to the Pacific Northwest when they are old.

    Great post as usual. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Remember, I’m not teaching a course in economics. I’m teaching a group of malformed brains. (That sounded better in my head. 😉 )

    In a purely economic standpoint, you are equating savings with earnings. Sure, they are very similar, but the differences are distinct enough to make my point, I think. Suppose that instead of energy neutral, I installed panels and also pushed a conservation program for my family, and we lowered our energy use by 10%. Now, I’m coming out ahead. But, suppose we sat down with a spreadsheet and figured out that a 20% reduction would save us even more. And then we did the same with 30%, etc.

    I haven’t checked the fine print, but I don’t think the utility company will send me a check if I’m net positive after a year. I’m pretty sure they will simply leave those credits on and I’ll continue to rack up “savings” in my account. I’m never going to realize those savings unless I sell my house and can convince them to settle my account with by forking over some cash. (Yeah, yeah, it would be a check, but that lacks the linguistic gusto I’m shooting for here.)

    So, anything beyond net neutral is a deferred benefit to me that I may never realize if I don’t sell my house.

    The economics are actually even more complicated since I have eight teenagers at home. My solar profile was built on that amount of use. In 5 years, those teenagers and their accompanying washing, drying, dishwashing, Xbox, 60 watt lightbulbs are all going to be gone. At that point, I will have WAY more energy than I need.

    So, while I didn’t point it out in the story, I think I’m actually at about 85% of my expected usage at this point. That puts me into the lowest payment category for my remaining energy needs. (Our utility has a tiered billing rate depending on how much energy you use.) And it means that I will only be slightly net positive as the kids leave home.

    However, those distinctions are lost on the kids.

    • Hmm, yes, all those are considerations, especially that the utility won’t issue a payment. But I disagree that kids won’t get it, I’ve been able to explain special relativity to groups of kids who insisted they were ‘dumb’ inside 15 minutes. Of course, they won’t always listen to dad….

  3. If we had to pinch pennies each month to keep the lights on, they would absolutely get it. They’re smart kids, but it just struck me as counter intuitive as I am making my house more efficient that in this case, the results are slightly different. I can’t yell at them about the electric bill.

    Of course, I also can’t yell at them about “We’re you raised in a barn?”

    “Yeah, Dad. Don’t you remember in 2006 when we lived in Uncle Bob’s barn for awhile?”

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