The American Solar Energy Society (or ASES) is one of our clients. I just returned from Phoenix, where ASES held their 39th annual Solar Conference. The conference is both a technical and practical symposium on the development and implementation of various solar technologies.
The conference was well attended and a number of promising developments and topics were explored, including how to market solar energy products to the masses. Not surprisingly, the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico was top-of-mind for many attendees. They felt that given recent events, there has never been a better time to move solar power to the forefront of the national dialogue on energy.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
They are wrong because of the simple fact that people have short memories. And with permission from my wife, the best example I can use to prove this point is childbirth. The short-term pain (so I’ve heard) and mess (so I’ve seen), which might preclude a rational human being from having more than one child, are ultimately washed away by the manifold pleasures of parenthood. The same can be said for disasters, either natural or manmade. Over time, we simply forget them and eventually return to the manifold pleasures that we enjoyed before the disaster.
I’m quite certain that some readers will say that I’m making a mockery of motherhood or the Gulf accident or both. And perhaps I am. But mockery or not, by focusing on the short-term pain and mess we run the risk of making the wrong argument for solar energy. Yes, the oil spill and the burning of fossil fuels is bad for the environment. Furthermore, dependence on fossil fuels represents national security and health risks.
But the negative impacts on the environment, national security, and health should not be the reasons we use to argue for the development of new energy resources. These reasons can be addressed through some type of indirect action. Energy extraction can be made safer through increased regulation, national security improved through more aggressive defense tactics, and health issues addressed through ever-improving medical technology. On the surface it will appear as if the problem were solved, but below the surface, really nothing would have changed.
We need to focus on a reason that cannot be solved through indirect action. Therefore, our need – and let’s be clear, it is a need not a desire – to harness renewable sources of energy, including solar, must be linked the simple fact that we are going to run out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. And no amount of legislation or spending or technology – all indirect actions and in this case, synonyms for hope – is going to put more of that good stuff in the ground.
The ultimate and permanent deprivation of humankind from fossil fuels will necessitate direct action, including the development and deployment of solar power. To the contrary, while disaster is tragic, Valdez and Chernobyl immediately come to mind, what really changes? Single hull to double hull? A cement sarcophagus on Reactor 4? In other words, it is business as usual while we return to the manifold pleasures that cheap and uninterrupted power can provide.
So a word to the wise for manufacturers and marketers looking to get solar power into the homes of consumers, don’t focus on the recent tragedy. Doing so obviates the bigger discussion of ultimate deprivation. We know that the vast majority of consumers care more about their comfort and convenience than they do about the environment. Tragedies happen somewhere else, but deprivation starts at home.