The Optimistic Futurist: Solar energy can reduce costs and climate risks

  • Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2013 12:19 a.m.
Francis Koster
Francis Koster

Think about how much you would be willing to pay for a life jacket of your very own as you and your child board the fishing boat.

How much? How much you would be willing to pay for one for yourself when the boat is sinking? For your child as the boat is sinking? I bet you got three different numbers. You recognized real value.

There are times when you are willing to pay almost anything to avoid catastrophe — but that is when it is staring you in the face, not when the danger seems remote.

Scientists believe that the upper safe limit of common greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). This would result in a 3.6 degree worldwide average temperature rise (hotter in some spots, cooler in others) over decades. Surprisingly, last fall we hit 400 ppm, and emissions continue to grow, not shrink.

There is breaking news. The ocean appears to be losing its ability to absorb greenhouse gasses, which means more gas floating into the upper atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change. In addition, polar ice is melting much more rapidly than predicted, releasing a lot of ancient greenhouse gas previously trapped under the ice, also adding to the rate of climate change.

We are headed into much more dangerous times sooner than had been predicted just a short time ago.

The updated prediction is that so much greenhouse gas is being produced that it will cause temperatures in parts of the Earth to rise 10 degrees by 2050. We are responsible for this state of affairs. This climate change is driven by the kind of energy we use.

One of the major impacts of making energy from coal, gas or oil is that this produces greenhouse gas. Conservation and solar energy don’t.

Due to initial prices, people constructing large buildings often chose to build facilities that do not include conservation and solar, so the utility has to use greenhouse gas producing generators to supply the building.

After all, there is no apparent cost to the building owner if the utility dumps the greenhouse gasses into the sky.

I have written about the difference between “price” and “cost.” Price is what you pay at the gas pump or electric meter. Cost is the total cost to society — it includes the polluted water and air, and the sick people harmed by the pollution. Cost also includes the greenhouse gasses created during the energy manufacturing process.

The scientists’ latest announcements about climate change tell us that the bill for the total cost of energy is coming due — soon. Want to buy that life jacket? For your kid?

Fortunately, you can. From 2001 to 2012, the average retail price of electricity in the United States has increased 35 percent, while the average installed price of a large commercial scale solar electric system has dropped nearly 70 percent. New legal and business models have emerged. The pricing and financing terms have gotten so competitive that companies like Wal-Mart, Costco and Fed-Ex have made major strategic decisions to get their energy from the sun. For example, Wal-Mart has set a goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electrical energy from the sun over the next seven years and is hard at work doing just that. It is doing this because the price is lower than continuing business as usual, and the cost to society is eliminated.

In the education world, Scottsdale Unified Schools made a decision based on price to get its power from solar — at 7 cents a kilowatt hour. To buy it from the utility would have cost 11.5 cents. And while reducing costs, they’re also reducing environmental risks for kids’ futures.

The bottom line is that under existing regulations, anyone planning a large public or private building can now finance renewable energy systems under terms that save them money now and in the future, while increasing the safety of the next generations. When the cost of buying the life jacket for future generations is now a good business decision, failure to do so is bad management — and poor stewardship.

As a society, we are past the economic argument, and are now into the moral one.

You can help protect your family by showing this column to decision-makers in your community. To locate companies that do these large-scale systems at these prices, simply Google “commercial solar installers” or reach out to the Solar Energy Industry Association at

Or send me an email. I have grandkids — I understand.

Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. Email: or visit

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