I want to put a solar panel on my roof so that I am releasing less greenhouse gas into the environment. But then I hear that manufacturing solar panels causes the release of greenhouse gasses, so I have to subtract that from the good I think I’m doing. But then I realize that the people who are making the solar panels have to change their method so they release less greenhouse gas into the environment.
We hear this argument all the time (for example, here). You think you are doing something “green” but it really isn’t green because yadayadayada. I am suspicious of these arguments because they often (though not always) come from people who want us all to keep using fossil Carbon based fuels, for some (unsupportable) reason or another. One might think that these arguments have to be addressed in order to do a rational and well thought out analysis of the decisions you make.
But that is simply not true for three reasons.
Reason One: So what? Nobody tells me I have to make a rational decision about buying the 72 inch wide TV to replace my 64 inch wide TV, but suddenly I’m a bad person if I don’t do a detailed Carbon-based cost benefit analysis when I want to do something EVEN COOLER than having a bigger TV, like putting a freakin’ cool solar panel on my roof? Excuse me, but STFU with our rational argument yammering.
Reason Two: You can’t count. If I put a solar panel on my roof, almost no one is going to discount the value of my house because it gets some free electricity, but a significant number of people are going to pay more for it when I sell it because it is cool. See reason one.
So when I put these together, my personal cost benefit analysis leans towards doing it more than the nay sayers might say. But still, if putting up a solar panel kills more polar bears than not putting up a solar panel, because the manufacturers of solar panels use thousand of tons of coal per square inch of solar panel, I’ve got to consider not doing it. Except for reason three.
Reason Three: If we all refuse to act until everyone else acts than we will not act. I will buy whatever solar panel I want, and the people who make solar panels can compete for my business by getting the energy to make their solar panels from … solar panels! Or not. Eventually they will because we ALL have to stop using ALL of the Carbon. Driving an electric car in a region where more coal is used to make electricity, would have to be MUCH less efficient than not driving the electric car (in terms of carbon release) to make me think twice about it. I’ll drive my electric car and at the same time we’ll watch the electricity companies make more and more of their electricity from wind and solar, and they will have a bigger market to sell that in because we are locally replacing gas with electricity. Of course, I will need the electric car to get cheaper before I can get one, but if I had one, that is what I would be thinking.
I’ve had conversations about this issue with a lot of people and these conversations have made me realize that the structural argument against clean energy is wrong for the reasons stated above. It turns out that A. Siegel has had similar arguments and he has had similar thought. It is possible that he and I have even talked about this and are pretty much on the same page. Go read To solar carport or not to carport, that is the (or at least a) question … and see what you think!
The naysayers want you to think small, but they make it look like thinking big. Instead of just calculating the immediate costs, consider also the distant polar bears crushed by the wheels of industry because you want a solar panel, they advise! But no, think even bigger. Think not only along dimensions of production and supply, but also, time and socioeconomic change. In order to address the climate crisis, we have to keep the Carbon in the ground. In order to keep the Carbon in the ground, everybody has to do everything they can do all the time, and not sit on their hands waiting for some other guy to change a value in our spreadsheet. Think big.