On hearing the news that three photovoltaic (PV) module manufacturers, at least one a recipient of federal loan money, have recently declared bankruptcy, I once again started thinking about my frustration with people’s attachment to putting cool “stuff” on their buildings before making sure that those buildings actually operate well.
I am reminded of what one of my industrial design professors used to call “dingles” — the pieces of shiny, useless sheet metal glued onto consumer products like cameras and radios; pieces that when pried off, hit the ground and go “dingle.” Now, I realize that solar panels, geothermal HVAC, heat-pump water heaters, and the like are not as useless as applied sheet-metal decorations, but when you put these things on otherwise poorly performing buildings, they are not that much better.
I have no problem with the PV arrays used by people like my fellow GBA blogger Martin Holladay, who lives off the grid, or Ted Clifton, who designs and builds net-zero-energy homes that include PV. But I have seen too many starter castles that are only marginally high performance homes with PV and geothermal HVAC systems because they can afford to put them in (and think they’re cool).
Let’s incentivize good building and behavior
Why not give people incentives for energy savings based on what they actually use, rather than what they spend?
Since energy rates in the U.S. tend to be low, most homeowners find that investments in energy efficiency and renewables usually don’t provide a fast enough return on investment. Instead of providing financial incentives for spending money on better buildings and renewable energy, how about switching those incentives to consumption? This could be done through energy rates that increase as use goes up, adjusted for the number of people in a home, or some similar measure. It may be complicated to manage, but if my experience with incentive programs and their obtuse and impenetrable documentation requirements is any guide, I don’t think it would be all that hard to do.
If someone wants to use less energy by living in a smaller house and living a lean life, they could do so with minimal expense and benefit handsomely. If someone else wants to build a super-efficient house and manage it well, they would also benefit by paying less for their energy. If yet another person built a house that wasn’t that efficient and installed PV or geothermal or something else expensive to save energy, they would get some benefits, but they wouldn’t be paid just for installing the fancy stuff.
Misguided financial incentives
My biggest problem is with the way financial incentives are distributed between building efficiency, equipment efficiency, and renewable energy. In my mind, it is mostly set up backwards – the biggest incentives are for renewables and the least for building efficiency.
In my perfect world, incentives for renewables would only be provided when all possible measures to reduce building loads were employed first. I just think that giving people grants or tax credits for spending big bucks on solar panels and geothermal wells that are attached to otherwise relatively inefficient buildings is a very poor use of our money.
The folks at Efficiency First tried their best to change this behavior, but their HomeStar program just twisted in the wind before dying in Congress — not surprising, since they didn’t have the lobbying clout that manufacturers of expensive products do. I see this a just another example of “product” winning the battle over “process” — in my mind, the opposite of what is right.