Solar power and energy efficiency are generally touted as two alternative solutions to our energy and environmental crises. But in fact, rather than being in competition with one another, it is actually only the two of them working in tandem that has the ability to get us out of this mess. In other words, it is a case of both … and, rather than either … or. Solar lighting and energy efficiency go together hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. Read on below to find out why.
As the threat of resource depletion and human-induced climate change looms over us, many people and businesses are now piling solar panels atop their roofs in order to light up their houses. Unlike electricity sourced from fossil fuels, solar-powered lighting generates no carbon emissions or other harmful pollutants. It relies SOLELY on the free, clean energy supplied by the sun, which it effortlessly converts into a form that can be utilized as light by homes and businesses when it gets dark. Solar is certainly making major inroads into the energy market, and this is due in no small part to government initiatives designed to create a financial climate favorable to solar, for example, tax credits, installation discounts, feed-in tariff schemes, and the like. And as the supply of solar power continues to increase, this pushes the cost down even further, making it more and more affordable to households and businesses.
This may seem like great news for those of us who have the future and well-being of the planet at heart, but actually, many environmentalists are worried that the preoccupation with alternative lighting and energy is actually distracting attention away from energy efficiency and conservation, which to their minds is the REAL solution to our energy and environmental crises. Instead of increasing supply, as this school of thought holds, we should be reducing our overall demand for energy. We can do this by retooling our appliances to require less power or replacing energy-hungry devices with ones that are less energy-intensive and have higher efficiency ratings (for example, phasing out incandescent lights in favor of LEDs – the latter emit the same amount of light as the former, but consume far less energy). We can also turn devices off when not in us. Insulate and weatherstrip our windows, walls, attics, and doors to better retain warmth, reducing the need to have heaters running constantly. Redesign our buildings so that they can better capture the natural warmth of the sun (again reducing the need for heating), and the like. In addition, we can go the ‘conservation’ route, simply training ourselves to ‘go without’, thus putting on an extra layer of clothing when it is cold instead of running the heater, drinking a glass of iced water instead of turning on the air conditioner on hot summer days, or reading a book for entertainment instead of watching energy-guzzling television. These are all straightforward measures that can drastically reduce our energy usage.
The energy efficiency advocates claim that this is ultimately the far cheaper and more effective option than for example ramping up the supply of solar PV panels, even when you factor in the government incentives encouraging the uptake of solar. After all, the key issue here is that solar suffers from the very serious problem that it only works when the sun is shining! And our electricity requirements just happen to peak in the morning and evenings, whereas solar energy output peaks in the middle of the day! Whilst it is true that battery and storage options exist that enable us to utilize solar energy after dark, and when it is cloudy, they are still quite limited in their capacity. And so solar energy on its own is still quite limited in its potential. Energy efficiency measures are needed to smooth out the dips and peaks in the electricity demand and solar energy output cycles. Moreover, focusing on energy efficiency measures will actually make solar power more accessible and affordable to the majority of people: by reducing the overall amount of energy we require to meet our needs, this in turn will serve to minimize the required size and thus cost of solar lighting systems. At current, many people are dissuaded from going solar because they use their own excessive electricity usage as a benchmark for what they will need in the way of solar panels. Solar power is prohibitively expensive for many people because of their wasteful consumption patterns, not because of solar itself! So that is why the energy efficiency advocates favor conservation over expanding supply. The problem is, though, if the majority of government support goes to solar-powered lighting initiatives, as seems to be the case at the moment, energy efficiency will get neglected and fall by the wayside, and none of this will occur.
But then what does this have to do with our thesis outlined at the beginning of this post? Well, the point is that the arguments of the energy efficiency advocates prove – unknowingly, and despite their intention – that solar-powered lighting, like solar walkway lights for example, and energy efficiency are actually partners in crime! It is not a matter of choosing energy efficiency instead of solar-powered lighting: as we have just seen, energy efficiency measures make solar power more viable, and solar power in turn gives energy efficiency its meaning. After all, fossil fuels are a finite energy resource and will have to be replaced. All the energy efficiency measures in the world won’t make a lot of difference if we aren’t able to develop alternative energy sources – like solar-powered lighting. The two don’t actually stand in conflict with one another; in fact, they go together hand in hand.