"Renewable energy works; it is as reliable as the sunrise; it will help us keep our planet habitable; and it's an excellent, cost-effective investment to make; NOW."

No Apologies

Obert Reslock

No Apologies

by Obert Reslock

I have been a solar energy advocate for, what seems to be, all of my life. I began walking my talk in the early '70's by re-modeling my homes to increase and take advantage of direct solar gain. Finally, in 1991, my family and I built a passive solar, off-grid home. Since then, using my own family's example, I have been a consultant, assisting others in making the move to renewable energy, without making drastic life-style changes. In 1999, drawing on my more than twenty-five years of teaching experience, I began teaching day-long workshops, sponsored by a local renewable energy supplier.

Over the past six years, I have noticed some recurrent themes in the questions asked by my students that caused me to examine what they are learning before coming to my classroom. Their questions reflect some general, pre-conceived notions, a paradigm, of what renewable energy is all about. The following essay is intended to address some common points in what that paradigm appears, to me, to be.

What is a paradigm? According to Dictionary.com, a paradigm is: A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.

Are we, as members of the renewable energy industry, responsible for perpetuating a paradigm that is not only inaccurate, but one that we also routinely, almost subconsciously, apologize for? If we are, then, as Walt Kelly's comic strip character, Pogo, said, "We have seen the enemy and he is us . . ."!

The "Pay-back" Assumption:

Even in our own industry, it seems that many of us believe that the purchase of a renewable energy system is justified, only if the energy cost savings will quickly amortize or "pay us back".

On a recent "Talk of the Nation" broadcast on National Public Radio, I heard a caller, a renewable energy consultant from California, apologize for the high cost of, and the slow payback on, the investment in a renewable energy system. It seems to me that we, the people involved in the renewable energy industry, are cutting ourselves off at the knees by accepting the commonly held assumption that goes something like this, "Renewable energy is expensive and therefore not cost effective. It takes a long time to 'pay for itself' ".

Why is it that renewable energy systems seem to be the only things that we buy for our homes and businesses that we expect to "pay for themselves"? Do we require our toilets to pay us back, or do we simply expect them to flush when we push the lever? When we buy appliances, we may choose the one with the Energy Star label because, in the long run, it will reduce our energy usage and save us money. But, do we ask our appliances to pay us back, to put back into our pockets their original costs? No, we do not. In fact, we know they will depreciate. We expect that they will be worth less than we paid for them the day after we buy them. The same holds true for our cars. When we buy a car, do we expect the car to pay us back? No, we accept the idea that it will always be encumbered in expenses: fuel, insurance, tires, maintenance and repairs, and it will depreciate, but we buy it anyway. After all, we all need transportation to get where we want to go.

The Truth of the Matter:
From the first day that we flip the breaker in our renewable energy system to "on", we will be saving, both money and natural resources. Depending upon the efficiency of the appliances in our homes and businesses, we'll save, anywhere from a little to a considerable amount, on our utility expenses, thereby giving ourselves a raise in our monthly discretionary spending. Additionally, the warranties on most renewable components meet or exceed those on the appliances we ordinarily buy and, as utility costs rise, renewable energy systems will actually appreciate in value.

The "It's Expensive" Assumption:

We seem to have conveyed to the public the idea that a renewable energy system is a necessarily expensive big-ticket item, somewhat comparable to buying an expensive car -- a Hummer, a Cadillac Escalade or a Lexus as opposed to a Hyundai. We know that the Hummer salesperson is certainly not going to apologize for the forty-plus grand price tag attached to his vehicle (and he'll gloss over the poor fuel mileage ratings, touting the car's performance). If the renewable energy salesperson seems apologetic for the price of his product, even if it's only the two grand price of a used Hyundai, is he not going to discourage his customer and possibly lose the sale?

The Truth of the Matter:
Renewable systems readily lend themselves to phased installations. Start small and affordable (think Hyundai instead of Hummer) and add on to a system as needs or desires warrant and personal cash-flow allows. If our customers understand that they don't need to bite off a big-dollar chunk all at once, that even a "Rolls Royce" renewable energy system can be built in pieces: the dashboard, doors, drive train, body and interior sized phases, the "It's Expensive" assumption becomes a moot point.

The "Renewables Aren't Reliable" Assumption:

Unfortunately, one of the largest stumbling blocks that we, as an industry, have to overcome is political. Each of the last seven presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican, has promised the people of this country that they would "reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make the United States energy independent." Yet we still hear mixed messages from assumably knowledgeable, responsible people: politicians, economists and industrialists, who have great power to influence public opinion. Statements such as, "Solar and wind can never provide a reliable supply of electricity. The sun doesn't shine at night or on cloudy days, and wind generators don't produce when the wind doesn't blow." (quoted from a letter printed in the November, 2002, issue of National Geographic from Mike McCormack, Former Chair, House Subcommitte on Energy Research and Production, Medford, Oregon).

The Truth of the Matter:
You can count on it: the sun will rise tomorrow, and it will continue to rise every morning for a few more billion years, and with the resultant differential heating of the earth's surface, the wind will blow. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, enough energy from the sun falls on the face of the earth each day to meet the earth's current energy needs for twenty-seven years. After all, the sun is shining on nearly 50% of the earth 100% of the time. Will our fossil fuel supplies last for a few more billion years? Will nuclear fuel rods? If our installed renewable production produced as little as 20% of our national needs (I personally believe that a more realistic number could be greater than 50%) wouldn't that amount be better than what we're doing now? Isn't some reduction in our fossil fuel consumption better than none at all? How much longer will our fossil fuel supplies last if we immediately start earnestly using renewables to conserve them?

The "Renewable Energy is Not Cost Effective" Assumption

Europe is light-years ahead of the U.S. in renewable energy implementation and utilization. Renewables are cost-effective in those markets because, for decades, they have been paying actual, rather than artificially reduced, costs for their energy. For instance, on February 7, 2005, the average price of gasoline per gallon in Belgium ($ 5.39), France ($ 5.25), Germany ($ 5.40), Italy ($ 5.49), the Netherlands ($ 6.12) and the UK ($ 5.62) was $ 5.55 (USD). On that same day, in the US, the average price per gallon was only $ 2.10 (www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/international/gas1.html), $ 3.45 less per gallon. And, we were incensed!

There is an old adage: "There is no free lunch." Our government has shielded us from directly paying the actual cost of the energy we use by instituting price controls and granting our energy suppliers tax write-offs and "depletion allowances" that are taken directly off their income taxes. What they don't earn from our monthly utility payments and pump prices, they make up for in tax write-offs, which keeps them solvent.

If we only look at the surface, it may appear to be a good thing. However, ask yourself who's making up the difference for what the fuel and utility companies are not paying into our federal coffers? In fact, we are. We just pay for our energy in a more round-about way, through our federal taxes. Because we're not paying at the pump or meter, we have been lulled into a false sense of security because our energy bills don't reflect our real energy costs. Indeed, we are subsidizing our own "lower" energy prices ourselves.

The Truth of the Matter:
As fossil fuel supplies decline, our energy costs will increase and every kilowatt-hour and BTU we create without burning fossil fuel is just as valuable as those derived from fossil fuels. As we approach the fossil fuel "wall", the value we have in our renewable energy systems will increase exponentially. Purchased with today's dollars, a renewable energy system will never be cheaper, and the cost-effectiveness can be readily found in our very near future. Do we wait for the catastrophic "gravy train" derailment and hope we survive it, or do we wake up now and get off the train?

We need to get the word out to the public that renewable energy systems are an excellent investment. We are encouraged by our government officials and our brokers to invest in a stocks and bonds market which, we hope, will gain in value or maybe even pay us dividends. As an investment, a renewable energy system will appreciate in value, guaranteed. Think about the rise of early "dot-com" investments without the "bubble burst" at the end, because we all know that, sooner or later, we're going to run out of fossil fuels.

What about dividends? They may not all be monetary, but the monetary ones will come. If you consider a renewable energy system as akin to a "Large Cap Stock" investment, you'll want to "buy in" now, and stick with it long-term, ten to twenty years. In that amount of time, our customers will be living on free power and heat. Is that a tax-free dividend, paid daily?

Every kilowatt-hour of electricity or BTU of heat that we produce renewably is one that didn't contribute to global pollution in the forms of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, aromatic hydrocarbons and all the other junk that is contained in our fossil fuel exhaust. Some scientists are now saying that the global atmosphere that we are creating today, with our pollution, is going to be similar to the atmosphere of the Earth before life existed. The less pollution we pump into our world, the longer we'll be able to live here. Is that a dividend?

For the renewable energy industry to expand, prosper and succeed, we need to convey to the public, with absolute conviction and enthusiasm, a more accurate paradigm: "Renewable energy works; it is as reliable as the sunrise; it will help us keep our planet habitable; and it's an excellent, cost-effective investment to make, NOW." No apologies

Biographical Information

Bert Reslock has been an enthusiastic, life-long advocate of renewable energy. Since 1999, he has been teaching renewable energy workshops in association with Independent Power Corporation in Reno, Nevada. His workshops provide an entry-level education in the basics of renewable energy power systems: how solar, wind, and net metering components operate in residential and commercial power applications, saving energy, money, and helping to clean up the environment. His six-hour workshops include a personally guided tour of the off-grid, passive solar residence that he and his wife designed and built in 1990-91. The tour of his rural Reno home graphically demonstrates and ties together many of the concepts that he teaches in the classroom. He's fond of saying, "We built this house to demonstrate that people can live in renewably powered homes without sacrificing any of the modern conveniences currently found in most typical U.S. households."

As an active member of Sunrise Sustainable Resources Group, the Nevada ASES (American Solar Energy Society) chapter, he has served as an invited speaker and panelist at public renewable energy conferences throughout the state. Through Bert's educational and promotional work, he has established a network of associations with many of the foremost scientists, engineers and executives in the industry. His and Patti's story has been used on Trace Engineering's (manufacturers of power inverters) world-wide advertising material for more than ten years.

Through their solar home tour and workshops, Bert and Patti have inspired many people to follow in their footsteps. Bert contends that if the people in the United States were not only more aware of, but also understood the obvious economic, environmental and reliability advantages of using the many forms of renewable energy available today, its usage would be considerably more "main stream" and common. His personal philosophy provides him with a very high level of motivation and enthusiasm to serve as an educator and drives his desire to reach and teach a larger audience.

Throughout his career as a professional Fire Captain/EMT, he has logged more than twenty-five years of experience as a versatile technical subjects instructor. In 1977, Bert attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Medical Sciences from the University of Nevada, Reno. During this time, much of his elective course work at the University involved classes on solar energy and its uses. He is a has a unique way of taking very technical information, breaking it down and making it understandable for the initiate to his subject.

Bert is a Nevada licensed photovoltaic contractor and he and his wife Patti operate Essential Strategies, L.L.C., a renewable energy design and educational consulting firm.

Obert N. "Bert" Reslock
1286 Deerlodge Road
Reno, Nevada 89506
Phone: 775-970-3176 Fax: 775-970-3476
E-mail: op@reslock.reno.nv.us

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