The vested interests that deny global warming or resist efforts to depend less on fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal, wood – have many advantages over those of us who advocate healthier, more sustainable approaches.
The primary advantage is that our entire physical infrastructure has been designed around the use of fossil fuels. Buildings, factories, power plants, transportation, materials, and production processes are all conceived of and created for insertion into an enormous, fossil-fuel-based edifice.
Second, our economy – and all the metrics that explain it, gauge it, and rationalize it – was designed and has evolved in a fossil-fuel world. The theories, assumptions, and formulas, and even the vocabulary (think of “externalities”) behind our present conception of market capitalism all serve to reinforce the idea that the use of fossil fuels is inherently economically rational.
Third, because the power, profits, and livelihoods of most of the private sector are anchored in the fossil-fuel economy, the preponderance of the lobbyist and influence money in the political system gets harnessed on behalf of the status quo.
So, in order for our society to make a transition to renewable fuels, a number of things need to happen. Foremost, we must understand that our atmosphere cannot infinitely and harmlessly absorb carbon dioxide.
Second, our clean fuels and energy must be able to compete economically in the market system. At the same time, we need to adjust that system to purge it of its fossil fuel bias, and to make it honestly reflect ecosystem damages and costs.
None of that will be easy, but some progress is occurring. Last week, I visited the Woburn office of Boston Solar and spoke with executives there. The largest installer of solar panels in Massachusetts, the company is a viable business and a real-world example of how to integrate sustainable energy into both the market economy and the existing infrastructure.
Boston Solar evaluates existing buildings on a case-by-case basis, and determines their suitability for solar panels. The analysis of a building focuses on two things: the duration of satisfactory exposure to sunlight; and the financial logic of installing panels.
The economics of each installation are calculated carefully. The cost of the panels, the tax credits and incentives available, the solar energy utilized and the electricity generated, the savings on the conventional electricity, the length of the “payback” period, and the amount of positive cash flow (from day one) are all weighed to make a proper cost-benefit analysis.
Solar panels today are solidly reliable and they now compete effectively with conventional electricity supplied by National Grid and other utilities. And homeowners with solar power get paid by their electric utility when their panels are generating more electricity than their home can use.
Solar photovoltaic panels are slim and silent, emit no exhaust, and contain no visible moving parts. They are elegantly minimalistic and contain three common chemicals that are arranged to generate electrical current in the sunlight.
A thin sheet of silicon crystals is the core of the panel. The top of the sheet is coated with phosphorous and the bottom with boron. When sunlight warms the panel, the heat energy causes the electrons within the phosphorous molecules to become excited. They vibrate, and eventually break free of their bonds to the phosphorous.
The freed and moving electrons – electrical current – travel through wires to the house electrical system, and then back to the boron in the panel. From the boron, the electrons migrate back to all of the voids in the phosphorous atoms, from which they’ll break free again. The electrons travel this big loop repeatedly.
The rigid silicon core absorbs the sunlight and organizes, separates, anchors, and regulates the phosphorous, boron, and moving electrons. There are hundreds of panel manufacturers, who have installed millions of panels, and this technology and its quality are now excellent, with a 25-year useful life.
With electric utility rates this year slated to rise 20 to 40 percent, solar power will steadily become more cost-effective. Additionally, as with computers and big-screen TVs, as solar panel sales volumes increase, their retail prices come down.
As more and more homeowners and business owners learn of the clear financial benefits of putting solar panels on their buildings (flat or sloped roof), we will see the dynamics of market capitalism affirm and accelerate the transition to greener energy.
And as citizens become more sophisticated about the costs – both financial and ecological – of maintaining and subsidizing (in innumerable ways) our fossil-fuel society and economy, we will be more motivated and better able to fight the policy and political battles that need to be fought to create more sustainable energy systems and sources.
Brian T. Watson is a regular columnist for the North of Boston Media Group, which includes the Gloucester Daily Times. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.