I’m a big believer in sustainability. I didn’t come to this late in life. One of the oldest books on my bookshelf, from when I was a metallurgical engineering major in the 70’s, is about designing houses with solar heating systems. That was one of my dreams. I’m always found the idea of houses that were independent of central utilities fascinating. I guess my love affair with decentralization began earlier than I’d realized.
But, as I write in Decarbonizing Locally (link below), a decarbonized future is better than what we have now. Too often, climate change is all about the sacrifices we have to make for the planet. But I think we can make more progress by realizing that sustainability makes our lives better.
One of the biggest things we’ve done at our house is put 40 solar panels on our house that cover nearly 100% of our electricity needs. How does it make my life better? I save money. So, it’s a no brainer.
The other big thing we did was purchase an electric car, in our case, a Tesla Model 3. In 1800 miles (with shortcuts) in a Tesla Model 3 (link below), Jason Snell describes his experience in a Model 3:
I figured that spending nearly two thousand miles in a Tesla would teach me some things about the current state of electric cars and long-range trips with charging stops, about the all-screen interface of the Tesla Model 3, and about how a Tesla interacts with an iPhone. And I was right—as the valley, city, and desert landscapes whizzed by, I learned an awful lot.
We’ve owned our Model 3 for almost 3 years now and I will never go back to gas. The car is fantastic and the electric experience very nice. I love driving past gas station and service centers realizing I don’t have any need to stop there–ever. And I’ve not experienced any range anxiety.
From a sustainability standpoint, decisions build on each other. Because I had solar panels, other decisions, like getting an electric dryer and heat pump furnace, become easier. The Tesla is a good example. Getting an electric car is appealing. Getting one when you know you’re leveraging another large investment is a huge win.
Globally, the sustainability picture isn’t so rosy. My experience doesn’t scale. I was lucky to get in on retail net metering. So, I sell excess power back to the grid at the retail rate. That’s great for me, cause it means I essentially have an infinite virtual battery that I rent for about $10/month (the “minimum” charge for my utility). Scaling that up doesn’t get us sustainable solar electricity. The system breaks well before that because $10/month/customer doesn’t support the utility infrastructure to provide the “big virtual battery.”
So, real scaling requires more than just putting solar panels on homes. The answer is a mixture of home solar, local and regional production, better batteries, and, most of all, revised regulations to promote it. One thing I’m convinced of is that generating electricity using solar is going to get cheaper and cheaper (see Solar’s Future is Insanely Cheap below). The problems are distribution and storage. That’s where we need to focus.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t preclude local choices like those I’ve made. Even without retail net metering, for example, solar can make sense as panels and batteries get cheaper. Plenty of people buy electric vehicles who don’t have solar panels because it makes economic and lifestyle sense. Make the choices that make sense for your situation.