Why Energy Abundance is Bad

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Think about it: Solar panels on every roof must be good, right? Our own almost personal power plants. We’re saving the planet, changing our own lives and saving money – at least in the long run. It sounds too good to be true. And it is.

Solar is an important ingredient in the recipe to reduce global warming. To many experts and enthusiasts, not to mention businesses, it’s the thing – alongside water (hydroelectricity) and wind. The trio even has a name: WWS – Wind, Water, Solar. Again – it sounds good, even looks good – on paper, and in parts of the world, in practice. But even WWS has a price, a climate footprint which most of the time is conveniently forgotten or ignored. So while WWS has the potential to deliver much needed ‘clean’ (as in non-fossil) energy to a world in need, it may also kill the patient in the process. Read more about that in Is ‘Going all Electric’ Killing the Planet?

As energy prices continue to soar, not the least around my neck of the woods, people are buying solar panels head over heel. It seems like the smart thing to do, a double contribution to the common good: Reducing our own consumption of a common and scarce resource, and sharing (read: selling) the surplus energy.

All good? Almost, but not quite: Many families have become energy conscious over the past few years, last year in particular because of price hikes and because it’s the right thing to do (see The Ultimate Source of Clean Energy: You). Then the solar panels arrive and with them, abundance. Energy suddenly feels free and our reaction is predictable. No more short showers, no more optimizing laundry and dishwashing, charging the car at daytime instead of at night, drive more since it doesn’t cost anything, etc. Of course reality is somewhat more nuanced than this, but this is the general picture. Certainly not what we need to ‘save the world’, rather the opposite: Increased water consumption, more driving, more detergent, more wastewater and so on.

What happened to sharing, to selling surplus energy? ‘The price we get is so low, it doesn’t matter’ is a typical reaction. ‘It feels like the power company is ripping us off’ is another. ‘It’s free, let’s spend it’ is a third. Again not surprising and at the same time quite revealing: The concern for the planet wasn’t real. If it were, we would keep focusing on the full picture, not only our own little bubble. (Actually, Wired Magazine recently had an interesting article about this: After Going Solar, I Felt the Bliss of Sudden Abundance).

In other words, while solar on every rooftop make us more self sufficient, reduces the load on an overextended grid and replaces (in many areas) dirty power, it has a significant downside: Our attitude. It may seem minor, but is the exact opposite: If the goal is to stop climate change, avoid climate disaster, attitude is much more important than solar panels and just about everything else.

A point very concisely conveyed by Jake Meeks on Medium.com a while back (To Survive Climate Change our Collective Mindset Must Change):

“Read any survival book worth its salt and I’ll wager the first thing a lot of them teach you isn’t about food or water or shelter. It’s about mindset. The argument is that if you don’t have the right attitude to survive, all the practical knowledge in the world is not going to save you. I would argue that mindset is as important on the collective level of survival as it is on the individual level. I’d argue that for humanity to survive climate our collective mindset must change.”

Touché. And if this hits a nerve with you, read the article!

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