Elon Musk and others would like to save the world through technological innovation. His current goal is to reduce carbon emissions using solar power and electric cars, making them affordable and ubiquitous. The official line is that these technologies will save us money, and become useful for everyone, phasing out current methods of travel and power generation. A solar collector on every roof and an electric car in every driveway! But, what about the majority of Americans who don’t own either of those things?
The idea that you can install solar collectors on your roof and cut your electricity bill is an attractive one, especially if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area that sees enough sun to let you go off the grid completely. But, that choice isn’t available to renters or individuals who own condos or co-ops. Renters are subject to the whim of their landlord, who theoretically wouldn’t be obligated to pass savings on to tenants, and multi-unit owners would need to get a motion past their homeowners’ association. While condo residents may not have too hard a time selling the idea, the returns are far less than they would be for a standalone home. Splitting the savings amongst a large building with, let’s say, 100 units might mean that seeing a return on the investment in equipment could take a very long time indeed.
Electric cars are a wonderful concept that are just incredibly impractical for a large percentage of US residents. For example, one of the oft-cited benefits of going electric is that owners simply charge their vehicle overnight by plugging it into their house. Whether or not a particular vehicle requires some sort of power converter is immaterial to folks like myself, who live in an urban neighborhood with street parking. It would be far beyond simply impractical to own such a vehicle, despite the promised benefits.
These new technologies pretty clearly favor the well-off, if not only the outright wealthy, and will not be practical until there’s a public infrastructure for it. But, there won’t be an infrastructure until there’s enough demand for private businesses to roll out. Ideas for implementation seem to be leaning toward the old gas station model, which is a mistake. Electric vehicles take far longer to charge than a gas tank takes to fill, even with proprietary high-capacity chargers, which still take hours to fill an empty battery. And, more importantly, this philosophy ignores the existing infrastructure that exists to carry electricity.
This is one of these ideas that I wish I had the capital to act on. I think it would be incredibly lucrative for whoever implemented it, in addition to doing a good deed. The American dream.
Someone should approach city governments and offer to install charging access points in street lights, MUNI meters, and any other publicly accessible points that carry power. Attach a credit card reader to take payment and install a camera to discourage vandalism. If people could charge their vehicles on the street, either while parked overnight or while running their errands downtown, they’d be far more likely to adopt electric vehicles. I know I would be. Even if the city added a premium of 50% to their charges for electricity I’d be saving against what I pay at the pump. Instead of businesses building charging stations we should be leveraging our existing infrastructure and providing income to municipalities.
As for solar installation, renters probably won’t ever see much benefit.