Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/02/2009 (1:16 pm)

Tearing Hair Over "Free" Electricity

No names to protect the guilty, but somebody I know recently installed solar power at their home, and then bought a little electric scooter to commute to work. The scooter saves a ton of money in commuting costs, sure enough, and it really would help both pollution and road maintenance if more people drove little scooters, and fewer drove SUVs. However, when excitedly recounting this meaningful venture, this fine, intelligent human being added “And it’s even better, because the electricity is FREE!!!”

I want to tear out my hair. That would require tweezers, thanks to the miracle of buzz cuttery, but… ye GODS. And this is a smart, successful person.

The scooter? Cheaper and more efficient, fine. But the electricity? All that this decent, caring person has done is move the pollution source.

You see, there’s a reason that solar panels cost so much to purchase, and the reason is the high cost of smelting silicon for the panels. This indicates not just dollars spent, but power used and pollution generated. This comment following a post at EcoGeek.org explains:

The majority of the world’s ‘quartz to silicon’ smelting capacity is dated, being very greenhouse gas intensive as well as producing an insufficiently pure material that needs expensive refining to meet quality demands by the solar and electronic industries.

Technology will probably improve the process for refining silicon in due course, at which time it will damage the environment less — but a true improvement in the process would likely be reflected in lower costs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; the point is, the clue that they’re harming the environment less will be that they cost less. The fact that it costs more now means that it’s harming the environment more now. The price is a rough marker for environmental damage, because it measures resources used in the process. This is especially true for resource-intensive products (like silicon panels) when compared to labor-intensive products (like coal.)

With price as a (very) crude marker for energy expended, one should assume that the economic payback of the installation at one’s home indicates (very roughly) how much energy it took to build the panels. That is, if it takes 20 years of savings from your electric bills to cover the cost of installing the system, producing the panels did more or less the same damage to the environment as producing the electricity for your home for those 20 years. I use “20 years” because in the instances of which I know personally, home solar panel installations have an economic payback roughly that long. Your mileage may vary.

I know you’re thinking about train loads of coal and huge smokestacks on the power plant, and roughly 80 square feet of itty bitty panels — but to make the comparison fair, you have to imagine how many homes are heated and run by that train load and those smokestacks, and figure how many panels it would take to power that many homes for 15 years.

So, no, my dear friend, the electricity is not “free.” It’s more expensive than what you were using before; and I mean that in environmental terms, not just economic terms, because the one indicates the other. I refrained from saying this in person because… well, doggone it, who wants to play “Jack the Dream Ripper” for one’s friends? But it’s true nonetheless.

In the meantime, I really hope this person drives very carefully. Motorists don’t respect scooters much.

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