On the same day the Solnit op-ed ran, the NY Times ran another story that spent hundreds of words to tell us that renewable power is just too hard – especially if you are older. The story in the Homes and Gardens section, where the time usually runs story about exciting, sexy, expensive houses, was titled “Exhausted by a House That Saves Energy.” Here’s the tag line at the end of the opening section of the story:
“I was an idiot and built a house that was way too complicated and labor-intensive,” said Mr. Brattstrom, also 78. “Only a masochist could enjoy it.”
The Times writer, Sandy Keenan, does state that the house is inexpensive to operate. But, of course, anyone familiar with renewable power knows this. More and more people are learning that renewable is less expensive than purchased fossil fuel power. Ms. Keenan, knowing that the argument is no longer valid that renewable power is “too expensive” seems bent on shifting the story to “it’s just too hard.”
Expense and inconvenience are the two themes that the electric power industry has used against decentralized renewable power. The holding companies’ marketing people used these themes for a particular reason: they are the two themes that all marketing people in the US use against their competition. Ms. Keenan has been conditioned to focus on these two themes as well, because these themes are now second nature in the US media.
For this reason, Ms. Keenan seems to miss the real core of her story. She does mention it, but it is buried among the complaints about how hard the system is to maintain:
But they didn’t want to scrimp on luxury or size, so against their architect’s advice they insisted on 5,000 square feet, enough space to accommodate all their children and grandchildren at the same time.
If they had it to do over, the couple agreed, their house would be much smaller — no more than 2,000 square feet.
That’s the real story here. The couple in the story failed to focus on reducing their electricity use before they designed their systems. They were thinking like consumers, not producers of electricity. If you are a producer of electricity, your goals are to minimize initial capital investment and to reduce maintenance labor and expense. If you read some of the comments to the article, you will see a lot of similar observations by engineers, most of whom focus on minimizing electricity use.
This is an important lesson, because it illustrates how all of us who have been raised in the world of fossil fuels need to change our behavior as we move to investing in renewable power. As we move into the world of decentralized power, made by ourselves, we have to focus on reducing our use first, before we create our new production machinery.
I’m sure Ms. Keenan did not deliberately set out to write an attack on decentralized renewable power, but her article ends up implying that maybe producing your own power isn’t really worth it.
The US media is full of these kinds of unintended, but effective, messages about renewable power. They reinforce a cloud of doubt created by other media messages, contributing to an overall belief that we are stuck with fossil fuels because nothing else works. And this belief fits nicely into the marketing goals of the current electric power industry.