“Have you seen what’s going on in your neighborhood?”
Just a few months ago, I found myself walking through quiet streets and cul-de-sacs in suburban Maryland asking people this simple question to start conversation. I did door-to-door sales for a residential solar developer - a company that installs solar panels on homes. At an increasing rate, rooftops across the country are being covered with these dark blue panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity. I helped homeowners understand the basics of solar and find out if their home is capable of receiving solar panels. If they were qualified, I guided them through the process of installation and turning on the solar system.
When I started, I was eager and energetic. Most homeowners I talked with, however, were not. I heard every excuse - they are moving in a few years and don’t want to be bothered with the hassle, or they want to wait and see if their neighbors actually save any money with solar, or they just don’t like the way the panels look. Breaking through those hesitations and inspiring people to care in a very short time was a struggle.
But why should people, particularly Christians, be concerned with solar energy systems? Let me offer two reasons - one scriptural and one practical. Genesis tells us that God created everything and called humankind to steward and responsibly care for this creation. Humans have not stopped dreaming, cultivating, and innovating since that time. Generation and distribution of electricity was a wonderful development a century ago and has facilitated incredible ability to manufacture goods, communicate, and make possible many facets of modern life. With electricity, we can generate power for hospitals and operating rooms where healing happens, for widespread access to information and knowledge, and for refrigeration technology to keep our food fresh and our houses cool. Consider the many ways electricity has allowed us to keep and steward this creation.
Unfortunately power generation via burning fossil fuels has come at tremendous cost to the planet, especially in the form of climate change. Even if you are not convinced by the science of climate change, you have to admit you wouldn’t want to spend an hour in a sealed room filled with the emissions of a coal power plant. We are long overdue for newer and cleaner technology to generate power. Stewarding the Earth means caring for the land, water, and air we all depend on for life. Solar energy systems are not a silver bullet for creating clean energy, but they offer one channel for doing so.
Secondly, we ought to be concerned with solar because renewable energy is our future. We are benefiting from ages of collection of the sun’s energy by plants, which lived and died and were eaten by animals, which lived and died and were all buried in the Earth under heat and pressure until they turned into fossil fuels. Running out of fossil fuel isn’t necessarily a problem, but running out of easily accessible fossil fuels is. When oil was first discovered and industrialized in the US, it squirted out of the ground in great geysers. Today, we search far, wide, and deep, cracking and scrubbing the bowels of the Earth with tools and chemicals to bring up the last bits of unrefined fuel. Harvesting fossil fuels is not likely to become easier.
We have the technology to convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity to power homes and businesses across the country, and that technology is becoming cost competitive with electricity generated by fossil fuels . On top of that, the amount of energy from the sun that reaches the Earth’s surface in one hour is enough energy to meet the world’s current needs for an entire year. Of course, the practicalities of capturing and distributing that energy are real, but the abundance of solar energy is clear. And we can count on the sun to rise and set every day; if not, we have much bigger problems!
Taking care of the environment is a public interest, and many state governments have passed legislation which requires utility companies to produce a certain amount of electricity by renewable means. These are called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) or Renewable Energy Standards, and 29 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted some type of RPS as of March 2015.
These laws are challenging and need to be written carefully. Utility companies have made tremendous investments to build power plants, power lines, and everything in between to create our electricity infrastructure. They count on customers to purchase the electricity generated by these facilities in order to pay them off. Requiring them to convert their production to renewable energy too quickly could cause instability in utility prices, meaning we would all pay more for electricity. On the other hand, we need to shift away from fossil fuels as fast as reasonable to avoid even larger costs down the road.
If you are someone who views solar and other renewables as a way to better steward our Earth, you can encourage your representatives to work on or pass sensible RPS legislation in your state. If your state already has an RPS, you can thank your legislators and ask them to maintain the standards they’ve put in place. And, of course, if you’re a homeowner, consider learning more about solar and consider getting it for your home.
The transition to clean energy is far from easy, but with care and intentionality, we can succeed and live into God’s call to steward the Earth.
-David Johnson is an engineer and problem solver by training, an educator and facilitator by experience, and a humanitarian and environmentalist at heart. He currently works as a SolarCorps Construction Fellow at GRID Alternatives, an nonprofit solar installer which helps lower-income families gain access to solar and renewable energy. You can find him on Twitter @superharmonic.