Friday, January 11, 2013

The High Cost of Savings

You know you're middle aged when conversations about home improvements start to sound interesting.  

In my defense, it is slightly geeky, and I've always loved gadgets and gizmos, so this may not be entirely old-mannish.  But yeah, it's still pretty domestic.  

A friend of mine was talking at length about solar power.  Not so much a chat as a full on Q&A session.  Not in general, but in a practical This Is How It Works Right Here And Right Now sort of way.  He's done his homework, and he's very clearly a fan.

I was always intrigued by the idea, but to be honest, it was more of a That Would Be Kinda Neat idea than a You Can Really Do This And It Might Even Be The Smart Move thought.  It's not as if it's a pressing issue, right?  I've definitely got higher priority business to sort before I... um... pimp my... crib... izzle?  (Gimme a break.  Middle aged, remember?)

And to be honest, I wasn't all that sure solar power made a lot of sense in Ireland.  Apart from the cartoonishly gray skies, we're awfully far north, and that means we've got some pretty short daylight hours in the winter.  And since we're only generating during daylight hours, when we're most likely to be out of the house, how much would we really benefit?  It's a cool idea, but I'm not sure it's terribly practical.

As it turns out, that just ain't so.  The panels don't need direct sunlight, so the cloud cover isn't a problem.  And as for the timing, that's not a big problem either.  In the last few years, Ireland's done a bit of rewiring, and now you can sell electricity back to the grid, meaning you get the benefit even if you don't use the juice yourself.  For the typical family, solar pays for itself in about four or five years.  

Sounds pretty good.  Of course, the question came up: "Are you set up with solar?"  No it wasn't me.  I thought the question was kinda silly, given the way he went on.  I mean, this guy has compared prices, looked into grants, checked out just how DIY friendly the job is.  This are not the words of someone who decided solar just wasn't for him.

So yeah, I was a little surprised at his answer.  "No," he said.  "I can't afford it.  Saving money's just too expensive."

Talk about your conversation killers.  Between the actual panels, converter, two way electricity meter, the wiring, it takes an investment of a couple grand to get started.  And as he mentioned earlier, it's at least four years before the savings reach that level.  He can't afford that kind of cash, so despite knowing that he could run his house with an fuel free energy surplus, he's still using fossil fuel generated electricity.  

And that was my big takeaway from that conversation.  This country - and every other country, for that matter - is filled with people ready, willing and even eager to take steps that would reduce their own monthly bills, the global dependence on a dwindling fuel supply, and air pollution.   It's no magic solution, but it's a pretty good start, and painless to boot.  This is the right thing to do.  

But too many people can't afford to do the right thing, and the ones that can afford it won't really feel the benefit.  Face it.  If you can comfortably afford what can amount to the price of a small car, you aren't really going to notice the savings on your electricity bill.  The people who stand to benefit the most are the ones who have to decide which bills get paid this month.  Imagine what one less bill could do for them.  

I understand that Ireland does have grants available for solar panels, but the only information I could find was for solar heating, not electricity.  The heating, by the way, does need strong sunlight for full benefit, meaning it's not terribly practical.  But for what it's worth, that grant is worth €800.  Assuming the electric panels have a similar deal, that's just not enough make a difference for most folks.  

So for now, my friend the solar fanboy does without and continues to spread the word.  And I keep thinking middle age thoughts about my house.