I spotted a freshly remodeled house in my neighborhood the other day. It had a large array of shiny new PV solar panels on the roof. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to afford such things? Wouldn’t it feel great to watch your electric meter spinning backwards?

You don’t see many solar panels in Seattle. It piqued my curiosity, so I found a solar cost calculator to find what it would cost to replace my electricity use with panels. The answer is about $160,000 dollars (taking about half a century to break even).

So why did these people bother? It certainly wasn’t to save money. Was it to reduce greenhouse gases? Do they see it as a stepping stone to more efficient photovoltaics? A photovoltaic panel in Seattle won’t save much CO2 (if any) — the electricity they replace comes from hydroelectric, and a lot of energy and CO2 was expended to manufacture them. Yes, you can argue that a house in Seattle with solar panels will free up power to offset a coal plant somewhere in the world — but it isn’t really that simple.

It’s possible they didn’t know the panels were not cost effective. It’s possible they didn’t know they were not reducing greenhouse gases. One thing is for sure, though. They look cool. As long as friends, relatives, neighbors, and dinner party guests don’t know any of these things, they are going to be quite impressed. They will be green with envy when the homeowner says, “Boy, it feels good when you see that meter spinning backwards.”

Another way to view these panels are as a billboard. To most people they advertise that the homeowners are:

  1. environmentally aware, and
  2. wealthy enough to own panels and willing to spend some of it on them.

But to at least one person, these panels advertise that the homeowners are:

  1. poorly informed, and
  2. using a lot of disposable income for no environmental gain.

Another way to look at these panels is as reverse subsidies to our public utilities. Rather than building solar farms on the sunny side of our mountains and transmitting it to the grid, individuals are spending huge sums of money to create their own power stations on top of their homes on the wet, cloudy side of the mountains to add an insignificant amount to the grid. Why not just pay that $160,000 to the utility company as a contribution to a solar farm or some other renewable project in return for no electric bill, no power station on your roof, and no maintenance hassles? In other words, participate in a green energy program. One reason is that you can’t advertise the fact that you did so. With a battery of panels on your house, you can.

As I sit here typing, my natural gas furnace is working to keep my house heated. It is an extremely efficient way to heat a home. The furnace is 95% efficient and natural gas is pretty clean compared to most fossil fuels. It also arrives via a pipeline. I bought my house in part because it had great southern exposure. I have installed 64 square feet of windows in my south wall to capitalize on sunlight. For the past two days, the temperature here has been in the twenties. But, low temperatures in Seattle almost always correlate to clear skies. On these cold, sunny days, the sun hits these windows at 9:00am and causes my furnace to shut off at about 10:00am. The furnace doesn’t come back on again until around 4:00pm when the sun has moved on. Today is one of those few days with low temperatures and dark clouds, so my furnace will stay on most of the day, and my neighbor’s panels will produce next to nothing. Even passive solar tanks on days like this. For example, the outside temperature is 38 degrees and the temperature inside my car (a passive solar oven on sunny days) is 42 degrees.

Heating homes with electricity is expensive, even here in Seattle. If we are going to replace natural gas with renewable electric someday (the URGE2 concept, which I am truly excited about), we had better get hopping. Right now, solar power reminds me of the first analog cell phones: big, clunky, expensive, an inefficient. Hopefully, solar will grow the way cell phones have. I still have one of those lead acid-powered dinosaur phones installed in my car. The one in my pocket was free, runs for days on a charge, and records video.

In one sense, these homeowners are part of my environmentalist monkey troop and I should be supportive of their efforts, regardless of how irrational they are. But I’m not, because poorly thought out decision making is not what we need, and these turkeys are propagating it. If envious guests go home and do their research, they will come to the same conclusion I have. Those panels on their roof make no sense from an environmental and cost perspective, at least in this part of the country. Individuals can only do so much. We need big changes in the right directions.