After two early misfires, Henry Ford had desperate trouble getting enough financing to build the assembly line that would in essence lay the foundation for the largest industry in history.
Critics have been equally aloof about alternative energy. They point out that wind and solar units are expensive to install, unreliable and not as convenient as the conventional sources of electrical power that we have in place.
Technology, however, doesn’t stand still. As solar and wind devices become ever more efficient, power storage is rapidly improving, too. Meanwhile, the cost of the technology is dropping so rapidly practical home systems will soon be within reach for the masses.
Just as was the case with automobiles, dramatic improvements in performance will soon silence alternative energy’s critics.
Driving the technological revolution are solar panels, which are halving in price approximately every two years. At current trends, it will soon be possible to install a complete solar power unit on your house and seriously consider going off the grid without sacrificing your lifestyle. For those times when the sun isn’t shining, new battery technology like the recently announced lithium aluminum units will soon have the ability to bridge consumers over those cold winter nights.
The implications of these shifts are as revolutionary as the Internet, which transformed the communications and entertainment industries. The fact that we could save money through alternative energy is the least of it. It is also not only possible, but quite likely, that within our lifetimes public electrical utilities will simply no longer be necessary on the scale they exist today. (Some centrally generated electricity will likely be needed for the foreseeable future.)
It also reduces the need for automobiles fueled by hydrocarbons. Luxurious electric cars and motorcycles are already capable of exceeding the distances traveled in the daily commute. If the cars drop in price as quickly as solar panels are, they too will be the less expensive and more convenient alternative.
Imagine plugging in your car at the end the day with electricity harvested from your own roof.
Oil executives need not lose sleep, just yet. There will be many applications – such as lengthy family car trips or long-haul trucking – where electricity is impractical. Even so, just think of the fuel that could be saved if commuters relied on electricity for their 25-kilometre drive to the office.
And, of course, I’ve saved one of the biggest benefits for last. Capturing and consuming your own electricity promises to dramatically reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. A year-and-a-half ago, a commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal declared that traffic-related air pollution poses major health risks for one-third of Canadians. Pollutants from tailpipes have been linked to the development of asthmas in children and adults, it stated. The website smartcommute.org estimates that 36 million litres of fuel are wasted every year in the U.S. in traffic. Compare that to your electric car, which uses no fuel at all when it’s stopped.
As costs cascade down, it becomes increasingly hard to understand why critics get so emotional in their opposition to alternative energy. Some of it may be related to wrong-headed efforts, like the one by the government of Ontario. The Liberal administration there spent billions of dollars building thousands of wind turbines across the province, implementing technology that will soon be obsolete. As a result, that province has the most expensive electricity in North America, according to the website windontario.ca.
That’s a shame. If the province had waited a bit longer for the technology to mature, homeowners would have had a solid business case to install solar panels on their own roofs. Naïve political enthusiasm has struck a withering blow to the credibility of the alternative energy industry at the very moment when it is about to come into its own.
If the promise of home power is realized, even Ontario consumers can enjoy the harvest of savings – by simply unplugging from the grid.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.