Solar Panels vs Caulk: When Does the Techno-Fix Make Sense?

Image credit: Slash Gear

So it might not have been on the level of sheer pointlessness represented by the spoon-with-built-in-scale pictured above, but my post on "talking tires" prompted commenter Joe to opine that there are now "too much electronics in cars that just over complicates things when it comes to servicing and extra energy." And Joe might have a point - from apparently disposable iPad's to prioritizing solar panels over clothes lines, as a culture we have a certain bias toward the high-tech end, even when it comes to living green. So when is technology a help, and when is it a hindrance to living more sustainably? I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on the false dichotomy of green traditionalism versus eco-modernity. As far as I am concerned, both high tech innovation and tried-and-tested solutions must have a place if we are going to get to where we need to go. What interests me is how do we, as individuals, decide between splashing out on the flashy new solution, or opting to restore, renovate and recycle—even if that means depriving green companies of much needed customers?

The dilemma is a common one. Do you buy a hybrid, or keep your clunker going as long as possible? Do you replace the inefficient HVAC, even if it has a few years' left in it? Do you drop $20k on a solar array, even if the savings will take years to pay you back?

As is so often the case, there are no solid answers. Academic tools like Life Cycle Assessment and carbon footprinting can help determine the true impact of a product, but sometimes that data is not available. And even when it is, you have to question the motivations, biases and vested interests of those who make it available.

So, absent of solid data and hard-and-fast rules, what's a confused hippy supposed to do next time they consider one of these big purchases? My friends Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of the Carbon Free Home, helped me get clarity on this question over dinner this weekend. you see, despite the fact that Rebekah's career is all about selling solar panels, she's often been amazed at how desperate people are to put them up - even if the location is wrong, the costs are too high, or if there are 100 other things they could do first that would have more impact for much less money.

It seems some people just want solar.

The lesson, I think, is not that solar is bad, but that it makes sense to get all the low-hanging fruit first. Don't buy solar panels until you've changed your light bulbs, put in an efficient HVAC (or got rid of AC all together!), hung up a clothesline, and maybe learned to wear a sweater when it's cold. By tackling the small stuff first, you even get to save money on the solar - because the less you consume, the smaller the system you need.

The other way to look at this question is to take some time to examine your motivations - do I want this, or that, gadget because it will genuinely make my life better, greener, or more fun - or do I want it because it looks cool and I want to demonstrate my greenness to my neighbors. The answer is likely to be a complicated one, but sometimes gut feeling can be a useful decision making tool.

Of course, there's a danger that we can concentrate too much on empirical impact and forget about culture. Dryer lines and sealed crawlspaces might save more carbon per dollar invested than solar panels, but if the solar panels are the sexy solution that raises eyebrows, whose to say that's a bad thing? I'd certainly much rather foster PV envy among neighbors and get them competing over the size of their solar array than have them worry that their SUV is too small. If fancy gadgets are what it takes to engage people, then there's something to be said for that too...

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