Last week my dad came over for dinner and afterwards I excitedly told him that the solar panels had started working. I was not quite prepared for his reaction. He mocked me. Words like crazy, stupid, ridiculous, and that old standby, oh, sure.
I’m still trying to figure out why. I suppose I could ask him but after the initial reaction I’m not so inclined.
It might simply have been my enthusiasm, an inviting target for any grumpy person. Like any boy I like my toys, but this one doesn’t depreciate by half when you drive it off the lot, nor does it get obsoleted in a year by a newer slimmer, faster model. This toy makes electricity from sunlight and it will do so for thirty years. If you have something more magical than that, take the time to phrase your wishes carefully before you rub it. (Not to mention it will even reduce my air-conditioning bill by its very presence — every photon of Washington summer sun that hits it, doesn’t heat the roof below.)
It might have been the cost. I bought a fifteen kilowatt system, a monster by home standards — even after the generous federal and state rebates, it’s a Jaguar. But it pays for itself in seven years. Solar panels are much cheaper than they were ten years ago (the real reason Solyndra went bust, should you ever be arguing the point — it’s hard to sell newfangled gear when China’s state-supported industries halve the cost of old-style gear), but even with the current generous government rebates they are not cheap.*
It might just have been the wine. After heart surgery he’s not the drinker he was.
Still — it wasn’t any gut level reaction against greenness and virtue (or if it was, it was left unspoken, and I sure didn’t make the mistake of adding that to my argument). My dad is neither early adopter nor luddite, and usually he can tell the difference between a boondoggle and an investment. So what gives? It’s not an idle question. If even ten percent of people feel like my father then that’s a whole lot of solar panels people in temperate areas won’t be using; that’s a whole lot of electricity people will be getting from fossil fuels.
And we both know, gentle reader, it’s more than ten percent.
I’m starting to wonder if it sounded too good to be true. If my dad reacted the way Jack’s mother did when he sold the cow for magic beans, if he flashed back to all those childhood hours I spent watching Star Trek and thought, “oh, no, not this again.” Computers were one thing — you could touch them, see them, you could print out what was on the screen. Phones, well, you can hear the other person. A solar panel is not directly measurable with five senses. It doesn’t roar or smoke or even vibrate. It doesn’t even move like a wind turbine. It just sits there.
But we need them. Every roof needs them. Power rains down on us minute by minute and for the first time in history we can use it directly, the way every blade of grass does. It’s time people start believing in magic. Wal-Mart does; why not you?
I wish we Americans believed in it to the point that we helped our fellow Americans make it ourselves instead of buying it from other countries, but I’ll take Chinese magic over American coal. Magic is less polluting.
*If you are considering solar panels, look into leasing, which for most people is the better deal. You get cheaper electricity; the leasing firm makes their money by selling the green-ness of your panels to utility companies as Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs.