Thursday, April 12, 2007

Solar? NIMBY!

In a previous post, I put forward the supposition that solar is best developed at a local level. The federal government needs to make sure that the grid is open to alternative energy and define standards that allow people to connect things to the grid, beyond that, Federal efforts to develop solar are bound to muck things up and simply enrich a oil barrons.

One of the replies to the post is that solar should be developed by local politics.

If you jump back in time (a half century ago); you would find that there was a great deal small companies working with various alternate energies. Most of these efforts were shut down by NIMBY local politics.

The down and dirty of it is that many forms of alternative and renewable energy create more visible pollution than oil and gas. The contraptions that harness water power, windpower, or that burned renewable biomass were unsightly.

Biodiesel, BTW, is not that terribly new. All that has happened is that it went from ridicule to chic. Do you really like cars that smell like french fries? Do you really want someone brewing up fuels in their garage? The political judgment on this type of activity a half century ago was a resounding: Not In My BackYard. Communities past a boat load of NIMBY laws that forced us into a single energy source solution.

Anyway, solar energy is right at the cusp where it will be cost effective on a massive scale. Once it is cost effective, greedy individuals and businesses will be slapping solar panels on their roofs to cut their energy bills.

Since there is a built in economic incentive for going solar, there will be no reason for local communities to play an active role in financing solar (beyond their own infrastructure developments). I suspect what we will see is local politics falling back into its NIMBY mindset. I suspect that local politics will quickly fall into its traditional negative role in efforts to limit where, when, and how people apply solar. There will be lawsuits galore when onen person's solar panel blocks sun from another property. Likewise, I wonder how long the politically correct chic wears off and we have the John Edwards of the world suing people right and left for putting up solar eye soars.

My judgment on political involvement in solar is: If they government makes massive subsidies on solar before it is cost effective, they will do more environmental harm than good. Subsidizing solar when the pollution created by the production, installation and maintenance of the panels is greater than the amount of pollution saved by the panels actually adds to the net pollution on the planet.

Subsidizing before it is cost effective creates waste. Subsidizing after it is cost effective is unnecessary.

Any federal program to promote solar will push solar energy into the big energy market. Local governments are likely to start with well meaning efforts to promote solar; however, local politics will eventually push them back into the role of zoning and regulating the industry.

In other words, the market is the sun's best friend.

(Alternative Energy Links)


Charles D said...

The "problem" with solar energy is that it will eventually localize energy production (probably along with wind). That means that the big energy companies are going to do everything they can to stop it, harness it, and make it serve their interests instead of the people's interest.

There could be a role for government, but we would be talking about a government very different from that we have in the US currently.

y-intercept said...

The local politics surrounding solar production is not created by big oil.

Big oil, big government and big business all benefit and even actively encourage NIMBY politics. NIMBY politics itself comes from within the community.

NIMBY politics almost always ends up greating an environment that favors big (politically connected) companies to small organic ones.

The big companies know this and encourage NIMBY politics in the guise of community action; however the impulse comes from our democratic instincts. Our democratic instincts scream that we should be able to vote those things we don't like out of the community. These are often instincts that we need to counter.