Saving the Planet?

snowy panels 1219
Solar panels: they don’t work when the sun can’t get to them. Someone should use their new ladder to clean these off.

No matter how you try to save the planet, someone is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

I have owned grid-tied solar panels since 2006. There has been an eight- (now six-) panel array on the roof above Pat’s Screen Printing for lo these 13 years. Because it’s a business, the array paid for itself fairly quickly through depreciation, but given the city’s public works anti-alternative-energy bias (hopefully that has or is changing with a change of personnel a few years back) and extremely low electric costs, it’s probably never going to issue a return on investment (ROI). Since the first set of panels failed and the replacements came at a cost (albeit a notably lower cost than the first time around), we’re further removed than ever from an ROI.

This did not dissuade me one iota in my pursuit of solar for our new house, and I like looking across the pond at our array, neatly arrayed five panels over four over three for a system that’s double the one at work. We also use a lot less electricity at home than we do in the screen printing biz, even though electricity is about 50 percent more expensive outside of the city limits (two entities side by side, completely different suppliers). In the best-case scenario, adding in the tax credit, we are still going to be 15 years out on our ROI.

Which maybe doesn’t seem to be much of a bubble to start with, but that didn’t stop a letter writer from bursting what there was of it.

I feel reasonably sure this letter was in the Crested Butte News two or more weeks ago, and I feel even more reasonably sure that the letter is still in the stack of unread newspapers right behind me, but if I start looking for it I’ll start reading, and at some point Kara might think to wonder what became of me this morning.

Going from memory, then, this man (a name I didn’t recognize) assured us readers that he had studied solar extensively, although that’s all he provided in the way of credentials. He then proceeded to disparage everything about solar as an energy source.

All the panel components come from extractive resources. When they reach the end of their life cycle, those components could be pulled apart and reused, but they probably won’t be, so you’ll end up with unpleasant toxins in your landfills. At best, they operate at a 20 percent efficiency, an efficiency that decreases with every year of use so that after five years your investment is fairly meaningless.

I’m sure he had other points, because it was a lengthy letter (as many of them in the CB News are), but you’re probably, as I was, getting the gist: solar panels are bad news and a waste of time and money. (Somewhere near the end of his letter he put in a pitch for hydro-electric production.)

I’ve been doing a terrible job of reading my local papers, and only happened across this letter because it was within the first five pages of the one CB News I’ve picked up in months. (I bring them home every week, and here they all sit, patiently waiting for me to pick them up.) So I don’t know if the letter writer received a response, although knowing Crested Butte, I’d be very surprised if someone didn’t rebut him.

Some of it’s not really rebuttable: the panels are made of plastic and metals and other things that had to be forced out of Mother Earth, and I probably contributed a set of eight defunct or failing panels that went straight to the landfill.

Here at home I opted for the most expensive option provided to me (in retrospect, a mistake) because the company I selected was supposed to offer better efficiency with their panels at something like 23 percent. (I think they’re supposed to hold up better over their lifetime, too, but so far they don’t seem to be producing any more than the lower-priced panels I use at work. And their reporting system has been dodgy at best.) And I did already have to replace a set of panels at work, although fault has been found with the manufacturer (British Petroleum).

A different letter writer, this one in the Gunnison Country Times, went looking into the county budget and concluded the county’s recycling program is a huge waste of money, because the expense far exceeds the return. (I have not made any effort to check the man’s numbers, nor have I read any responses to his letter.)

Perhaps both these letter writers are correct, but if you follow their lines of thinking, then that suggests making any effort to save the planet is futile and we shouldn’t even bother. (Although the anti-solar writer was pushing for water power.)

If it’s not going to work perfectly on the first try right out of the gate, then why should we bother? Let’s just extract and burn every ounce of fossil fuels we can pull out of the earth, no matter how many earthquakes it causes — and never mind the inefficiencies of an internal combustion engine.

I don’t know how old the anti-solar guy is, or how long he has “studied” solar. Maybe he’s worked in the industry. Without his credentials, I have no idea how credible he is. But as a solar panel owner/user for 13 years, with one replacement on my watch, I can tell him this: within about a decade, the price of the solar panels about halved and the efficiency doubled (not when there’s snow on my panels, like there is right now).

My friend Bruce, who installed my original array, confidently predicted that one day people will find a means of producing panels without using extractive products. In the meantime, he felt that was a better use of these products than pumping them into the same old gas tanks, furnaces and power plants.

I still agree with him, and I think the letter writers are a bit myopic. Sometimes we need to try to do things to improve not only the quality of our own lives but the only planet we have (so far — maybe if we work on Space Force  we can completely trash this planet and then move to the moon), and if we’re not going to get it completely right on the the first try, or even the third or 15th, that doesn’t mean we give up completely and go back to our wasteful ways.

Because why make any effort to save the planet if it’s going to cost more than we might make out of the deal? Unless we maybe take a longer view, and decide that spending some research and development dollars now may be invaluable to the planet — and us — down the long road.

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