Unsustainable Solutions in the Name of Sustainability

By Rick Harrison

renewable_energy_on_the_gridThe other day when I was riding my bike in Minneapolis crossing I-94 near Riverside I encountered a small townhome project built during the first (failed) green era under the Carter administration. It was built to showcase the future. One thing I’ve learned over the years building my own green homes is to not listen blindly to the experts who parrot others’ ideas without thinking of the ramifications.

The world’s first solar and earth-berm grass-roof townhome projects look like this today:

image of townhome

The original townhomes were built with earth covered roofs, with south facing solar panels for heating, and stored the heat collected over a long period of time in a room full of boulders. In 1983, I also owned an earth-berm solar heated home overlooking a lake in another part of town. Back then we thought, as the world freezes over (no global warming at that time), we would be nice and toasty in our ‘energy-independent’ homes powered by the sun itself. I went even further with a 10kW Bergey Wind Generator on a 100′ tall tower. Heated by the sun and powered by the wind.

As you see in the above pictures, this experiment, which had the University of Minnesota involved (from what I remember), did not age well, nor did it work – at all! Gone are the solar panels that used to collect the heat positioned along the bare brown steel roof panels, and gone is grass roof that leaked. Banished is the room full of boulders to store the heat, which got so hot often windows needed to be opened to let in cold winter air, a problem my own solar home had also.

In 1983, my 4,000 square foot lake front solar home cost $120,000 and after tax credits, my Wind Generator cost $12,000. These smaller townhome units cost $80,000 at the time. One of the original residents who stayed over the decades experienced failed systems and lawsuits. They eventually sold their home – for $80,000! Quite the investment these fancy schmancy trendy homes. A Nigerian investment scheme via an E-Mail might have been less risky. You would think the first home owners would have been the architects and professors who were behind this project – but they themselves didn’t buy in, so there’s an indication that maybe the idea was not so terrific. This is the lesson I’ve learned, never take advice from anyone who is not willing to personally invest and take the same risk as they suggest to others in a new concept.

The Carter era was a troubled one, with energy widely predicted to be running out, and home mortgage rates as high as 18%. It’s hard to imagine there was any new housing being built, but some were. The initial residents of these townhomes (including myself) believed we were the smart ones, preparing for the energy costs skyrocketing and never having to worry. Hell could freeze over – but we wouldn’t.

That was then, but how does this apply to now, especially with an election just days away?

Hillary Clinton was promising half a billion solar panels on rooftops. OK, now picture the above bare rooftops – that’s how the roofs will look when the lifespan of those half billion heavily subsidized solar panels reach the end of their usefulness – in two decades. Where do you think most solar panels are made today? If you answered China, you deserve a star! And if a roof needs repair or replacement prior to the end of the panels’ lifespan, will the government subsidize the extra cost of repairs? Who will pay for cutting down the mature trees along the streets so that the sun can reach these panels? Oh, wait, you are supposed to keep those mature, beautiful, and value increasing shade trees? My bad. You think Obama Care was a terrible idea… just wait for the Hillary program, and the social engineering sure to follow, and sure to fail.

Trump? I imagine he’d be politically incorrect of course, calling those solar townhomes: ugly, hideously, awful useless, fat, blemished, blight… only unlike comments about women, he’d have a lot who would agree. I don’t know what a Trump administration would look like, but I’m pretty confident that it would not involve social engineering, nor have subsidies go to China or Mexico. I hope that if he had a wind or solar agenda, the panels would be produced here with a fair and proper competition to award the vendors with the best price/performance ratio and make them bond a 20 or 30-year fund if the mechanisms wear prematurely.

I hope that Trump or Clinton look into creating new programs that encourage private new developments or large scale redevelopment to have their own ground based solar gardens instead of the current wave of public investments of solar farms which have federal tax advantages but seem, at least to me, a questionable investment at best. They are even promoting these solar investments at the Best Buy store in Minnetonka, Minnesota with the promise of a consistent energy cost, but they require a 20-year commitment, even though the average home sells once every 6 years.

These are heavily subsidized by you, the tax payers. Some of these solar fields are supposed to supply the power companies themselves, for example Ivanpah in the California desert which was to supply power for PG&E. Ivanpah was a solar system using mirrors heating up over 170,000 panels to create steam, but failed to deliver the power the ‘experts’ promised. Besides killing thousands of birds, the 1.5 billion dollars of your tax money was pretty much a really bad investment – oopsie! A more viable alternative is to create a more localized system as part of new developments or large scale redevelopments.

Having a solar garden in a subdivision eliminates the problem with roof-top application, cleaning ice and snow off the panels, and streets could still have those shade trees. Each resident in the subdivision would have their share of the power and as technology improves, every resident would benefit from the latest technologies – be it solar, wind, or both. Such a Federal program does not exist – but should.

Top photo by https://pixabay.com/en/users/Kenueone-2397379/ [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and LandMentor.com

This article was originally published by New Geography on 10/22/16