PV stands for photovoltaic, or solar electric, for those of you on the learning curve out there.
I'm a PV installer, and also a licensed electrician. I went to electrical and solar school and apprenticed under an electrician in order to get my electrical license ? specifically to be a solar installer.
So here's my confession: I might be nearing the end of my PV career. But let me explain! I used to get the biggest thrill from PV. I loved seeing and touching the panels, their shiny black blueness, their silver electric lines, the magic that, without sound or motion or pollution, turns sunlight into electricity. (How cool is that, anyway?) I even loved inverters, the straight-laced, complex electronic boxes with snazzy graphics that turn the panels' direct current (DC) into the AC current we use in our houses.
I had hoped it would be a long-term relationship, a marriage so to speak, and I have to ask myself, is the honeymoon over and I now need to adjust to the longer-term commitment, more stable but not quite so exciting?
Or is it something else?
Solar is the only career I've had where I've been excited to tell people what I do, and almost always I get an interested query or comment in return. And I don't think it is just because I am a female electrician, which is admittedly rare. Everyone wants free electricity from the sun, you would have to be an idiot to turn that down! But to get back to the point, my present disillusion with PV stems partly from a conversation I had a few weeks ago. It was with a student in an all-women's PV installation and design course I was teaching for Solar Energy International, and we were talking about "right livelihoods." What exactly is a right livelihood? Obviously it depends on your own morals and conscience. I've thought about this concept often throughout my early adulthood, although I never had such good terminology.
Right livelihood to me means working within my skill set, to do more good than harm for the people and plants and animals around me, while doing something I enjoy and can get paid at least a little for. I just finished reading Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, which reinforced the notion. McKibben devotes much of chapter one to the research concluding that, in general, happiness increases up to a per capita income of $10,000, after which point any increase in money has no noticeable effect on happiness. Increases have perhaps even a negative effect, as chasing dollars often leads to overwork, less time with community and family, and a hyperindividualism that can cause depression. Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer's lifelong dedication to curing diseases of the lowest rungs of society, touches on this idea as well, and is one of those rare books that can make you sit down and reassess your life.
For a while I thought PV installation was the best answer to my right livelihood, but I'm starting to question that. Here's why: the price of heating fuel keeps going up, and I expect electric rates to rise as well. PV is incredibly expensive, and whole-house systems are only affordable for the wealthy, or those in states with significant credits and rebates (even with rebates a system will still cost close to or more than $10,000). So now, when I see PV panels, of course they are still sexy, but a little guilt creeps in too when I think about the fact that one 200-watt panel costs more than some people in developing countries make in an entire year.
Of course, developing countries can and do install less expensive micro-PV systems to run small lights or fans, but I don't live in a developing country! The problem in my neck of the woods ? Durham, NC ? isn't lights and fans but winter heating bills.
Our electricity is still so cheap here in the States that keeping the lights and fridge on costs only about $15/month. But heating bills, whether from electricity, natural gas or propane, are veering out of control for lower income families already struggling with higher food bills and general inflation. What is going to happen this coming winter?
Hell if I know, but it could get really ugly. So I've started to shift my mentality. Am I really helping anyone with PV installations? Maybe I reduced the electric bill for a member of the middle class and they will donate the money they saved to weatherization for lower income homes? Hmm, possible, but I doubt it somehow. I don't discount the reduction in green house gas emissions from every PV system I install, but if the electricity was being used unwisely in the first place, it is possible reduction and conservation could have served the same end at much lower cost.
So what if I start installing solar air heating systems instead? They cost only a fraction of what PV does, and can offset a significant portion of winter heating needs. Sadly not as sexy as PV, but more of a right livelihood? Am I being too hard on myself here? Looking for the perfect and discounting the merely good? At least air heating is still solar power, and I would still be a solar installer, if more of the HVAC variety than electrical variety.
I'm going to have to balance my ego here. I love being an electrician, working with something invisible and dangerous ? high voltage DC ? almost like being a secret agent! Venting ducts aren't nearly as exciting. Our book, The Carbon-Free Home, has more details on DIY solar air heaters. You can build your own in a few days for a few hundred dollars.
This wouldn't be the best job security move for me, going from something highly technical that takes special training and is the fastest growing industry stateside to low-tech DIY. But hey, part of the reason Stephen and I are happy is because we constantly realign our lives with our personal goals as they shape shift with the changing reality of the world.