Image credit: mjmonty, used under Creative Commons license.
Whether it's the moral case for embracing renewables, or the way that solar panels change your relationship to energy, we've heard many an argument for why Return On Investment (ROI) is not the be-all-and-end-all for deciding when to go solar. Usually these arguments tend to be seen as a justification for why the wealthier among us may want to invest in solar but, with recent news that solar may become as cheap as coal by 2015, they take on a whole new aspect. Because once prices start to converge, solar has considerable competitive advantage for almost everybody compared to conventional energy sources like coal.I started musing on this some more having read Erik Frazier's post over at Renewable Energy World on why Return on Investment in solar should be just one factor among many in deciding whether or not to install photovoltaics on your home. From resale value to hedging against energy price rises, Frazier makes the case that we should think in much broader terms than simple ROI when we talk about the solar cost-benefit analysis. It's time, he argues, to consider the "less tangible benefits that solar PV can provide", so I thought I'd take a stab at outlining a few more of my own:
1. The Moral Argument for Going Solar
As Brian argued in his piece on why focusing on grid parity does renewables a disservice, there is an urgent case to be made for embracing renewable energy, regardless of the immediate economic costs. After all, how do we put a price tag on a stable climate, and how do we evaluate the true cost of oil, coal and natural gas that are being externalized by energy companies not paying their way? By investing in solar, or other renewables, home owners take a major stand against the old fashioned extractive economies, and for a cleaner, more innovative future. That's something that's hard to put a price on.
2. Ownership and Engagement
By taking charge of the energy we produce, we literally transform how we think about power. This is no longer something that is "bought" from a centralized utility, but rather something that we can take control of ourselves. Either as home owners, or as communities, we have the opportunity to harness natural forces and produce our own electricity. And as I demonstrated in my post about solar encouraging energy conservation, we are more likely to value resources that we take responsibility for ourselves. So here we see a non-tangible benefit (a sense of ownership) transforming itself into very real, very substantial energy savings as homeowners change the way they consumer electricity.
3. Keeping Up with the Joneses
There's no doubt that the competitive tendencies that our consumer culture encourages can have significant negative impacts. From encouraging bigger and bigger McMansions, to inciting riots and a sense of material entitlement, the idea that you are what you own is not the brightest pinnacle of human thought. Nevertheless, solar advocates would do well to find ways to harness our baser competitive instincts and encourage solar as a status symbol. After all, if we must compete over something, why not have our neighbors compete their way to the smallest energy footprint?
4. Building Resilience
Frazier touched on this in his original piece, suggesting that a hedge against future energy spikes was a smart move on a simple economic basis. And it's true—even major corporations like IKEA are making significant investments in renewables to insure against energy price volatility. But solar can potentially provide a much broader contribution to household or community resilience. While grid-tied solar systems will do little if power is out, either off-grid solar systems, or grid-tied with battery back up solar systems, can help keep the lights on when the power goes out. And if we start thinking of resilience on a community-scale, a distributed grid of diversified energy sources can have significant benefits over purely centralized supply. As energy storage becomes more viable, these benefits will only increase.
5. Innovation for Innovation's Sake
While resilience, doing good, and even "solar as status symbol" may all play a role in why early adopters choose to go solar, we shouldn't forget one of the simplest reasons why any new technology starts selling—it's new. We already know that human beings are hardwired to crave novelty, so is it any wonder that a significant portion of the population (myself included) is quite simply fascinated by the challenge and the opportunities in engineering an alternative to business-as-usual?
The 20th Century paradigm of the extractive economy is, quite frankly, boring, and it is time to do things differently. Whether that means embracing solar, or exploring new ways of organizing like collaborative consumption, or all of the above and more, the fact is that newness is itself a competitive advantage, and one that clean energy advocates would do well to make use of.
True, the economics of solar are crucially important in gaining wide-spread adoption, but as with any true cost-benefit analysis we have to be very careful about how we define our parameters. A clean energy source that can operate for decades to come with minimal upkeep, and zero additional fossil fuel use, is something that is so radically different to coal, gas or oil that it seems almost silly to compare the two on pure, narrow economic terms alone. But as the purely economic comparisons themselves start to converge, the non-economic arguments become ever more important too. Because that's when we step out front and win.
More on Solar and Renewables
Asking When Solar Will Reach Grid Parity is the Wrong Question
IKEA Buys 9MW Wind Farm, Plans 3MW of Solar
Solar Panels Promote Conservation: The Behavior Change of Going Solar
Solar May Be as Cheap as Coal by 2015