“I’m a secret agent for Mother Earth.” So proclaims the T-shirt given me by Powerfully Green, my solar panel installer. The 36 new electricity-generating panels themselves are no secret—quite visible on my roof. (“They look sexy,” says my neighbor.) I do admit to some secret satisfaction, however, whenever the sun is shining, based on both what those solar cells are doing and what they’re not doing.
My Powderhorn household was one of the lucky ones that made it through the funnel of demand for $5 million of Xcel rebates in 2013 in Minnesota. (Many applicants were not so fortunate; Xcel has not explained its decision-making.) So my household enjoys yet another good reason to get up in the morning—watching the lights on the basement inverters twinkle as they show power starting to generate silently with the dawn.
December is a month of noticing the sun—when it shines and when it doesn’t. We also seem to be beckoned to orient to the cosmos through the long nights and morning visibility of the moon. It helps us get our attention out of the daily distractions and reminds us of our place in an order greater than ourselves. There are laws of the universe greater than my human influence, yet the part that I play really does matter. It is a law of the universe to respect the needs of the generations to come. It would be wrong to live as though my lifespan and lifestyle were all that mattered. Many of us call this stewardship: It is our responsibility and delight to care for the creation that we enjoy.
For some time, I have been aware of my complicity in systems of abuse over which I have little control. I am aware that my electricity use from the power grid fueled by coal, gas and oil propels a devastating chain of negative consequences, including wars for oil, mountain top removal, and permanent water and air pollution, that leads to suffering and early death. Whatever negative impact we feel now is minimal compared to what the next generations will have to address, having inherited the toxic mess with depleted non-renewable resources. I am personally appalled by the human arrogance involved in nuclear plants where water is boiled today by creating material that will be toxic to life for 10,000 to one million years. Currently, casks of this radioactive material are being stored on an island in the Mississippi. (This is the sort of storage arrangement that is still imperiling a massive area from the crippled but still out-of-control Fukushima, Japan, nuclear power plant site.) It is hard to comment on the arrogance of this local risk-taking without sounding hysterical.
Ironically, the deal made in the Minnesota Legislature after a closed meeting with the CEO of NSP (predecessor to Xcel) included a sort of bribe per stored cask that funds part of the rebate I received for the solar installation. The thinking in 1994 was that the renewable energy fund would propel clean energy sources before a lot of casks were stored. Storing incredibly toxic waste near the headwaters of the Mississippi was assumed to be temporary. How are we doing?
Now we also can see that burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate in volatile extremes. It is time to stop digging ourselves and the future generations into a hole! The mix of renewable energy generation methods do today have the capacity to meet our energy needs, engineers explain. The country of Germany is a big solar power generator even though Berlin is further north than Duluth. But we do need to stop thoughtless and unnecessary waste of electricity. Our historic cheap rates of electricity do not include the harmful additional costs mentioned earlier. Part of how we “pay” for dirty energy is in the “unhealthy air” days when particulates choke off life.
The value of solar power generation includes its local application. Nearly 50% of the power generated at a plant can be lost over transmission lines by the time it reaches a user. In contrast, the electricity from my roof powers those close by—my household and my neighbors—losing little in transmission. In Minneapolis, solar power generated by residences flows directly into the city power grid. My array typically produces more power than the house uses when the sun is shining (so that excess is sold and powers other users), but when the sun is not hitting my solar cells, I buy energy from the grid just like anyone else. Clever engineering makes this seamless for me. If I want, I can check where the electricity I use is coming from, but no action is required. The solar cells work silently without moving parts and are expected to last at least 40 years. Over those years, the residents of this house will experience low electricity bills.
Public policy of the prior dinosaur fuel era constructed the current model of quasi-public electric utility as manifested in Xcel. The utility seeks to return profits to its shareholders, which, in its current business model, come from increased consumption and building. The public has guaranteed it a return on investment for everything it builds. Over the last four decades, I have watched the local electric utility put its resources into resisting green energy changes, responding only as it is forced to by public regulation. I pray for policy makers within Xcel and the public entities to respond appropriately to the crisis of planetary climate suicide.
Given the rebates available in 2013, my out-of-pocket thousands of dollars of investment on my roof should get paid back in about seven years for the rebated part and substantially longer for the non-rebated part. I decided to maximize the use of our roof instead of being limited by what Xcel’s rebate program covered at that time. The financial deal is always changing. It will be different in 2014; and one can only estimate the future cost of electricity, value of solar, and competitive interest rates.
I personally am unlikely to be living under my solar roof for the lifetime of its generativity. I’ve certainly benefited from the lives of my ancestors. May others reap what I’ve sowed on this roof. Call it a law of the universe.