Solar-Powered Band-Aids

I’m getting that feeling again…the same feeling I had after studying Environmental Science in college. It’s a mixture of feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, followed by a tendency to shut down, back away, and disassociate. It’s why I never pursued a career in water rights, or environmental policy. It’s why I’ve never even claimed to be an environmentalist. Let me explain. 

My intention for this article was to write about our experience purchasing solar panels for our home. The why, the how, and even the logic behind the financial decision. I wanted to let you know that the Federal Tax credit is available for the next year or two. According to Energy Sage (2020), the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) allows you to deduct 26% of the cost of installing a solar system off your taxes, if the panels are installed this year. The federal deduction reduces to 22% next year, and then drops off. 

It cost us $13,500 to purchase the panels and install them on our home. They’ve been installed for one year, and they meet all the energy demands of our household. Theoretically, the savings on our electric bill create a rate of return that should pay for the panels after 15 years, and save us $30K over a 30-year period. $13K was a huge investment for us, and we worked really hard to save that money. We felt more comfortable investing our savings into a tangible good, like clean energy for our home, rather than into a dubious stock market. Investment-wise, according to our solar installer, the 20-Year Internal Rate of Return on our panels is 8.4%. Pretty good when compared to the last 20-Year average for Dow Jones, which was 7.3%, according to Wealthsimple (2019). 

Sounds like a good move, right? So, what’s with “the feeling”? 

To round out the article, I wanted to do a little more research…in particular, I wanted to understand the full cycle of the panels. How resource intensive is their manufacturing? How long is their life cycle? What happens to them when they die? I’ve often wondered, but hadn’t ever taken the time to look. “Hey Google, are solar panels resource intensive?” A quick search presented me with “43,900,000 results (in) 0.66 seconds.” What’s at the top? “In some cases, producing electricity by solar panels releases more greenhouse gases than producing electricity by gas or even coal.” Low-Tech Magazine (2008).

Okay, that’s a dagger in the heart, but who has ever heard of Low-Tech Magazine? And 2008 was a long time ago. So, I start my chase down the rabbit hole. Jumping from resource to resource, my heart sinking as I read headlines like “Will Solar Power be at Fault for the Next Environmental Crisis?” I start to read one article, then hop to another, skip a few, trying to stick with the reputable sources I’ve actually heard of – but, holy moly, so…much…information. My mind starts to spin, and that’s when it kicks in. That feeling I was talking about earlier. The overwhelm, the confusion. Who can I believe? What information can I trust? If solar panels are such a problem, my basis of understanding, and knowing what to do, is flipped upside down. It makes me shut the computer down, and say “Screw it. We can’t get anything right. I give up.”     

A few days later, I tried it again—mainly because, damnit, I have an article to complete. I search for the same information, and this time, I agree to forgo my email address in order to read from my old trusted friend, National Geographic. My pillar, my base of support, my inspiration—who also crushed my heart when it sold to 21st Century Fox in 2015. This article, however, titled “How Green are Those Solar Panels, Really?” was written in 2014, so I feel it’s still believable. And you know what? It was just what I needed to calm down. To stop spinning. In a nutshell, it explains how the manufacturing of solar panels does have serious environmental impacts, and, because the industry has grown so quickly, the regulations are slow to catch up. There is a group called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) that has been tracking the environmental impact of the high-tech industry since 1982—and they are keeping score on which manufacturers are doing a better job at keeping their manufacturing clean. Hooray! Something to feel good about. Companies are being scored in the following ways: funding a recycling and collection system for old panels, emissions and emissions reporting, workers’ rights, health and safety, supply chains, toxic materials, water, and conflict materials. Here’s a shot at who tops the list, and thankfully, our LG panels score pretty high. Whew! 

2018-19 Solar Scorecard by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Finding out that solar panels come with a lot of baggage was really disheartening, and sure takes the wind out of my sails. However, it’s reassuring to learn there are people who formed a non-profit and are working hard to hold companies accountable and inform the public. I’m amazed at my new-found sense of relief. It’s a ray of light that illuminates and expands my perspective. It inspires me to reconnect with my passions and interests. To re-engage. 

When it comes to making decisions, I like clear, simple answers. They don’t come easy in the world of environmentalism. Everything is connected, and therefore complex. Whether we’re talking about the pros and cons of alternative energy sources, recycling, or electric cars, there are always multiple sides to the story. I find the only clear and consistent answer is to use less. Less energy, less materials, less travel. Renewable energy is great, but it’s a band-aid for the real issue of over-consumption. So, yes, we have solar panels on our house, but the bigger story is what we can do to reduce our energy demand.

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