A joule is the amount of energy used to lift a small apple one meter.
An exajoule is a billion billion joules.
The Sun delivers nearly four million exajoules to our Earth each year.
And all the world’s plants capture only three thousand of those,
while we humans consume a paltry five hundred,
in all our activities and industries.
That’s an amount equal to the energy our planet receives
from the Sun in just ninety minutes.
-Factual source: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
In the summer of 2015, Elizabeth and I moved to New Mexico, a state in USA’s Southwest. She’s an artist and I’m now a creative nonfiction writer, after retiring from my 45-year international career. There are fun communities of artists and writers here, as well as people interested in international issues and solving some of America’s many problems.
We bought an adobe-style, one-story house (no stairs for our aging bones!) in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, near Central Avenue—part of the famous Route 66 celebrated in song—a street lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, and old motels of a bygone era, some now being torn down and turned into new condo complexes. New Mexico is called “The Land of Enchantment” for its ethnically-diverse people and equally diverse landscape: deserts, scrubland, grassland, river valleys, forests, mountains, and an average of 293 days of sunshine each year.
Having spent much of my adult life in the tropics, I became interested in solar energy. In 2016, I invested in the installation of 20 Sunpower panels, made in California. After studying the matter, the solar installation company placed them on the roof of our large garage—the best option for energy production. This system supplies about 70% of our electricity needs. It cost us a total of $21,400, after a 30% federal renewable energy tax credit. (At the time, New Mexico’s credit had run out of funds or a mandate.) Some people opt for loans or buy-back deals, but we had the cash and thought it was a good investment. The whole system is under warranty for 25 years with only a slight decline in efficiency.
We are now recovering our costs in electricity savings and likely will recover more than we put into it before we sell the place. Over 25 years, energy savings are estimated to be about $45,000, and more if you count inflation. Undoubtedly, we won’t be around to benefit from all of that, but our house has gained in resell price and the next owner will continue to reap the rewards. I have never cared to calculate only OUR benefit.
But I do care about another kind of savings. A figure popped up on my monitoring website when I checked the other day: our small system had already saved our atmosphere from 48.5 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)! Quite a surprise to me since I had not been following it closely. A fine achievement, I thought, and a benefit of our moving to this sunny state from the East Coast. Alternatively, as can be seen below, the benefit can be translated into other great things for healing our planet from human abuse.
New Mexico’s solar energy tax credit was restored recently, so I decided to go for the missing 30% of electricity needs by adding 8 more panels to the system, placing them on our house roof. They feed into the existing system. This time I went for more advanced REC panels made by a Norwegian company with headquarters in Singapore. Each panel operates independently on its own inverter so if there is shade on one, the others will continue to generate optimally. This additional system has a 30-year warranty.
Our second installation cost us an additional $14,000 [but only $8,960 after federal (26%) and state (10%) tax solar credits are recovered], and it will save an estimated additional $24,000 in electricity costs over 30 years (more if you count inflation). Our solar system remains hooked up to the state’s electricity grid, but our meter runs backwards with good sunshine. I’ll have to see if we generate a surplus over the first year. Perhaps the policy will change so we can sell it back to Power New Mexico. The cost of large storage batteries remains too high for us to get off the grid completely, but the price will come down as this country switches over to electric cars. On the other hand, I’m not an individualist and like the idea of being connected to the majority.
New Mexico is gradually freeing itself of the fossil fuel lobby and major new solar energy projects are coming on stream to feed into the Western electric grid, harvesting more of those exajoules of energy from our Sun. Still, individual action is needed now, if you have the means. Throughout the US and the world, we can’t wait for politics to catch up with the reality of climate change—a growing list of disasters, annually.
Each year, we humans pump about 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. I estimate that by 2040, my little project will have averted about 1,500 of those tons. So, I told Elizabeth I won’t sweat anymore about the small amount of C02 released when and if my remains are cremated. Besides, solar-powered crematoria are on the way. Amen!