by Brendan McGarry
– The Capitol Hill Times –
When we think about nature or hikes in the wilderness at our backdoor, it’s easy to forget that our choices in the city impact what we appreciate elsewhere. The bulk of electricity for my small apartment comes from dams near Seattle. In one way I’m glad for this.
We should appreciate that dams provide affordable energy without dirtying the air. Yet, dams could never be considered low impact considering their major effects on both aquatic and terrestrial environments. Energy demands aren’t going anywhere and dams won’t always be up to date or capable of meeting all our needs.
There’s no debating that we need cleaner, more efficient energy. Coal power still exists in Washington but is thankfully on its way out, and with luck we will not be harboring additional coal trains moving through our city. Wind energy has positives, but destroys habitat and kills birds and bats. There’s still hope for turbines to have less impact, but we need a diverse energy portfolio. What about solar?
Solarize Seattle: Central/Southeast, a campaign by Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (Northwest SEED) and Seattle City Light, proves that solar is not only viable in Washington or Seattle, but also here on Capitol Hill. This is their seventh campaign in Washington State, the fourth in Seattle, reaching over 1,750 people at public workshops, with 300 residents installing solar, and investing $7.5 million into the local solar economy. The campaign not only offers the benefits of group buying discounts, connections to banks for low interest loans, but also educates participants through the process. As solar continues to grow, rebranding from “alternative” to mainstream energy, it’s increasingly important to provide good information.
Not too long ago, solar energy, on the grid or otherwise, was prohibitively expensive. This is no longer true and not just because of tax credits. The current standard of crystalline silicone photovoltaic cells cost around $0.75 per watt in 2013, down from $76.67 in 1977. A typical household will receive a 4 to 5 kilowatt array, which will cost around $18,000 to $30,000. That’s not something most of us can shell out for out-of-pocket, but loans are available and there are tax credits for investing in renewables. Besides, after the initial cost, there’s little to no expense.
Obviously, we live in an urban environment and are fully integrated into the grid. When a system is installed it contributes to the grid. Seattle City Light is actually buying back electricity, and on average a system will provide a house using mostly electric components with half to three-quarters of their yearly energy needs. During sunny months, arrays may even generate more electricity than they use, which balances our gray marathons.
We should be transitioning to solar because it’s a source of renewable energy, but there are upfront environmental costs to creating the components. Of major concern are the materials used to make photovoltaics, which are heavy in hazardous, non-renewable materials like copper, and need proper handling and disposal. We’ll never have utopian, fully neutral methods of energy generation and we should always care about what materials are being used, but concerns should guide, not obstruct solar power. This technology is improving and should continue to reduce impact.
The resources to create the systems also appear quite meager compared to a lifetime of generation. Currently the estimate is that energy payback for a system is about four years of use, meaning that the energy to create and install the system will be essentially balanced in that time. The photovoltaics that Solarize Seattle wants people to install come with 25-year warranties but will still function beyond that point. With at least another 21 years of emission free energy left, investing in solar is a sound choice.
As we continue to move forward, there needs to be a continued view of connectedness in our world. Electricity doesn’t appear out of thin air. As consumers we need to be smart about our energy consumption, not just passively trying to turn off lights, but by investing in systems that both help the environment and save money.
If you live south of the Montlake Cut, east of I-5, west of Lake Washington, and within City of Seattle limits and are interested, you should act soon. Northwest SEED is offering free workshops between July 23 and Sept. 18, which gets you a free site evaluation and a better picture of the process. Registration for the program ends in October. Visit solarizewa.org for more information and to sign up.