Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Hasn't Someone Else Done This Already?

A first in what may become a series, except I can't remember what the second thought was.  I want to focus an idea that I had, which when it finally gelled into focus made me say, "Why isn't someone doing that!?!"  I'm sure in 99.9% of the cases the answer will be "money" and "5 year planning goals", both of which are personal irritants for me (have I discussed my personal feelings on money here?).

This particular thought occurred to me while I was clearing the ash in my fireplace and prepping a new fire.  We use a freestanding wood stove for most of our winter heat.  I live in the cold, where snow used to be common (really it never seems to really arrive anymore, but whatever).  For some reason I was thinking about energy, electricity, alternative energy (a thought hobby for me, remind me to write up my micro-wind power idea sometime), regulation, and a documentary I watched 4 years or so ago about California and their alternative energy goals.  I'm sure the knowledge that solar panel plants started and failed in the last 4 years was in there as well.

I think solar is a fascinating industry.  It's been around for ages, yet it's still a novelty.  This is sad.  Sure the panels from the 70s aren't nearly as efficient as their newer counterparts, but outside of the rare few you just don't see them around.  There are houses here that have some, and I'll be the first to admit that direct solar radiation isn't the most common thing here; when most people go to work and return home in the dark.  The decreased amount of solar availability for a significant part of the year, it sort of starts to make sense.  But even in areas where the lack of light isn't the biggest detractor there is a universal problem that is: the cost.  Solar tends to be prohibitively expensive, it's a "long-term" investment in a world where now is the only important concept.  Homes rarely have generational value, and for those who can afford to place panels, they'll only begin seeing the financial returns in their retirement, if they don't sell first.

OMG!  What is on that roof!?!

So with solar being one of the green industries that were such a hopeful boon a few years ago (which is a great idea, since most green energy ideas are too big to import efficiently and thus equals more local jobs), it's really really sad to see them closing up factories and giving up.  As I knelt by my fireplace I wondered why exactly they were collapsing.  Now, with my laptop DOA and my time limited, I did not do any research into this subject.  Yet, some things aren't so hard to work out for yourself if you just apply a little logic to the chaos and snippets.

First up is the energy trap.  As a humanitarian striving society we subsidize power so that the poorest amongst us will not freeze, boil, or go without what we consider the basic necessities of human society.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It would be absolutely horrific if people couldn't cook because they don't have electricity or gas to turn on the burner, and asking them to crank up a fire in their apartment is just not a safe proposition.  As a result we all benefit from lower utility costs and have the brunt of the payment taken from our taxes instead.  Unfortunately, this means the costs of change are much higher than they would be if the full bill was on our doorstep directly.  If we directly paid for our energy without subsidization the green energy payback would not take so many years, it would be seen much earlier.  As result solar panels, in my dad's words, "Are only something you do if your kids are going to inherit your house, and keep it."

"Your lot buys them. Our lot inherits them." - Mary Crawley  

In the US we don't have the culture of keeping inherited property.  We have a lower income society that can not possibly face the brunt of their full utility bill.  We have a dependence on energy that makes it a necessity.  And we have an antiquated system, funded by our social need.  Solar can't break ground because the cost of transitioning is just too high, but without increased sales to reduce manufacturing costs and overcome the training of installers costs, the price can't come down.  So that the money saving, planet helping, new technology is undeniably completely unavailable to those who could use the utility break the most, those who would benefit the most from the savings, and from the possible payback of contributing to the grid, the lower classes.

A while ago I was watching a documentary on California and how governor Schwarzenegger had started a program to help bring older low income housing up to an energy efficient code.  People were going around, replacing lights and windows and teaching low income Californians some simple cost effective ways to minimize heat and cooling loss in their homes.  Fixing up ones home is usually completely cost prohibitive, when you can barely afford your next meal.  Still the gesture of helping out and taking out some of the burden on the grid and therefore the government subsides was a good idea.  As a side benefit it also brought up the value (although marginally) of the home that was occupied.

The governator wants his people to stay warm, without bankrupting the state.

So why couldn't a private individual start a foundation to put solar panels on low income houses?  Oh sure it's way more expensive than changing a few light bulbs, but if a person went about it the right way, they may not lose money in the deal and a very worthwhile industry could boom.

First the given individual (hereafter referred to as you), is going to need some serious investment startup.  You are going to start backing solar production and bankroll a foundation (or at least seed it) to start putting solar panels on low income houses.  This insures at least a small level of demand for the new solar production facilities, which will have something to do while they wait for the economy to recover and people to start embracing the benefits of solar.  They may even have enough to kick back into R&D, which in this authors mind is the most vital part of any industry, and make even more efficient easier to install solar panels, or an entire industry of replacing AC with the more efficient DC for standard household devices (since solar panels output in DC, but AC is used because it degrades less over long distance power lines.)  Anyway, they are going to have stuff to do.

It takes genius to see the light.

Back at the foundation, some low income neighborhoods are going to get a value bump.  People who live from paycheck to paycheck, but have had enough savvy to purchase a home are going to find a little more flexibility in their monthly budgets and a bit more value in that low end house they can barely maintain.  They will have greater pride in their home, their neighborhood could be picked up just a bit more, for moral it'll be hard to beat.  Furthermore, if they do decide to sell and cash in on their new foundation provided/sponsored improvement, they are going to see a slightly higher interest and those who move in are instantly going to be reaping the benefits while their enthusiasm for the new residence is at it's peak.

With more people using solar and the benefits being touted not just by those who understand the complexities of finance, but by the common person who can now afford a reliable car, or more regular shopping trips, the demand for solar will grow into the middle class.  The middle class has long been recognized as the consumer heart of the country and the buying power that makes any industry desirable and successful.  They also really don't like not having something that has become essential for others.

Think of all the savings, think of all the jobs!

As more and more people move off the conventional grids (or reduce their usage), the need for government subsidization will reduce and can be moved to the new power options, or reassigned completely.  And we'll all live happily ever after.  Or the whole thing could just blow up in your face, but to me, it seems like a good thing to try.  Because the status is not quo (sorry after putting Dr. Horrible up there, I just had to throw in a quote) and we really do need to motivate our bottom line to change for the benefit of all society.  I'd like to think I'm right on this, I'd love to see someone do this, and if you do - write me, I'd love to have panels here!

edit:  Before all of you who think it's better to leave the poor alone and let them learn to pull themselves up with hard work; I challenge you that maintaining a solar panel so that it creates energy and enables you to reduce your costs or even make money with it is more work than managing investments for which your sole contribution is an influx of cash and you sit back and reap the outcomes.  Therefore, I further challenge you, that this is not a free giveaway that will cause the poor to be unable to care for themselves, yet an investment opportunity being passed into the hands of those who could benefit most from being given a chance, and those who would most recognize the benefit being returned.  Plus owning a residence and being low income already indicates, at least to me, that the owner is capable of managing money fairly well and is ready for the opportunity to continue bettering themselves.


  1. Amen! On that last part! Sounds great! Not smart enough to understand all the details, but the right person with the know how and the resources to pull something like this off it could work beautifully! I like how you think! I can see where some low income people would just take advantage of this and not improve their life, but I think you're right that if they own a residence, even if it's low income that shows some motivation, so yeah, they'd totally take that encouragement and do something with it!

  2. A couple years ago, my dad was working by hooking up American companies with manufacturing capacity in China. I'm sure that we have different opinions on that particular subject, let's set that aside and talk about solar. A business my father worked with had some prototype solar panels that they thought they could make cost effective if they could reduce the cost of the labor that goes into them. They tried making them in China and found that the materials are too expensive to make them do more than break even by the time they reach their expected lifespan. They don't last forever. They wear out, just like most things. And even ones made with the latest technology only barely paid for themselves by the time they were expected to stop working. The project eventually went back to the drawing board to see if they could find a way to make them with less expensive materials. But the lesson is that solar just plain isn't ready for prime time yet and until those constraints are worked out, it isn't time to install them on grand scale. I am saving that particular hope for when my kids are in high school.


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