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Solar Suburbs

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Visions of rethinking suburbs to be green-friendly abound:

These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one—solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity, and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand. The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars, and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.

This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars, and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.

One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, the chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.

Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” says Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”

Marc Gunther usefully notes in the linked article that this isn’t likely happening soon for the usual reasons–lack of federal investment, untested technologies, dirty energy’s monopoly over electrical grids in many states, etc. But I think more interesting is the idea that suburbs could become green, which I don’t really see. Because actually the vision of these solar suburban planners isn’t all that revolutionary or really all that green. A sentence above reads, “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots.” But that’s only partially true. The homes are going to be just as big. The cars are still in the driveway. Shopping malls and vast parking lots are still part of the picture. All of the land management issues and inability to create public transportation because of a lack of density are still central to this urban model. Sure, it’s somewhat less bad for the environment, but it still leaves people living in these suburbs as committing significantly more environmental damage than the average citizen of New York City.

I’m fine with all sorts of attempts to limit our environmental impact on the planet but let’s not overstate the case. The house in the photo above might have those solar panels. But the lifestyle of people living in a single-family home of that size is not going to be available to everyone, nor is it truly sustainable.

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  • I wish we could put solar panels on our condo complex.

    Unfortunately we can’t so much as touch the roofs or we void the warranty from the installer.

    • Jackov

      The first step in the suburban green revolution will be relocating all those people in apartments, condos, townhouses into proper detached single family dwellings so they can install solar panels and EVSEs.

  • Rob in CT

    Hmm. Between you and djw, I may have to defend mah WAY OF LIFE. I’ve heard it’s important. Worth spending trillions of dollars and rivers of (other people’s) blood on, actually. ;)

    Seems to me we ought to want greener (less bad) suburbs as well as greener cities. You can go all blue sky and imagine re-arranging the US like (idealized) Europe with dense urban areas surrounded by countryside, linked by excellent intercity rail, but getting there from here is the work of, what, several generations right?

    [obviously, I live in a big house on a giant plot of land in a suburb/exurb and I have solar panels]

    • Origami Isopod

      but getting there from here is the work of, what, several generations right?

      At least. And it’s going to take some major catastrophes, unfortunately, to push opinion in that direction.

    • GFW

      I agree with Erik’s criticism of the line “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today …” but not with much else there, for the same reasons as Rob.

      The (real) rationale for solar suburbs is precisely that they visually resemble existing suburbs and deliver the same lifestyle that large numbers of citizens (including myself mostly) have decided they want or have been conditioned to want. Changing those wants and actually moving people from suburbs to cities is, as Rob says, the work of generations.

      In contrast, existing suburbs can be retrofitted to be carbon neutral with solar panels, heat pumps and electric cars in relatively short order if say a carbon tax made it the obvious choice for most homeowners. True, compared to an urban public transit user, the suburban electric car owner would still own objects with much more embedded environmental cost in them (e.g. the batteries) but once built they’re highly recyclable. And I also think that the self-driving-taxi model of car sharing will cut down on the number of vehicles really needed.

      So I think this is a very useful (if also obvious) concept. I’m partway there. I live in a single family home in a West Coast suburb. This burb is relatively dense, not McMansions on half acre lots. I don’t think I’d be happy in the city. It’s quieter and I see a lot of “suburban wildlife”, particularly birds but also coyote, opossum, raccoon and deer. I saw a pileated woodpecker last year. I’ve made my home much more efficient than it was, and I plan to do more. My last month’s utility bill was under $70. In winter it will more than double that but not triple. That’s with an air source heat pump and no solar (yet). I don’t have an electric car but seriously plan on going that direction for the next one. Carbon neutrality really is possible, particularly as batteries, panels and the grid itself are improved.

      • Rob in CT

        The big issue with making my home carbon neutral would be heating.

        The solar PV array produces between 90 and 95% of our power useage over the course of the year, depending on the weather.

        But we chew through ~1000 gallons of oil a year to heat the house and generate hot water.

        Heat pump systems are apparently getting better, but they’re still not as effective in this climate as opposed to, say, Virginia. At least that’s my understanding.

        One could build from scratch and do better, of course. Instead of rooftop solar panels (or in addition to them), use a tracker array. This would generate more power. Use that extra power to run a heat pump system, maybe with electric heat for backup. Electric water heater.

        But retrofitting my house to do all that is major, major work. The PV array was heavily subsidized. The available subsidies for upgrading a heating/cooling system are pitiful in comparison.

        • GFW

          Agreed that many more advanced retrofit options are not yet even available, let alone affordable/subsidized. For example, no one outside of some very specialized green contractors I’ve met has ever heard of an HRV (heat recovering ventilator). For another, all heat pumps (fridges, home heat pumps, heat pump hot water heaters) are stand-alone. No one makes integrated systems for those. Even retrofitting solar hot water is a big problem if the necessary pipes are not already in the walls. But think of all the jobs we can create designing and implementing solutions! (Funded by a carbon tax.)

        • liberalrob

          Retrofitting is obviously a big problem. It’s a major undertaking to convert all the old heating systems that still rely on fuel oil (or maybe even coal?) to more modern systems based on natural gas or electricity. It’s going to be slow going.

          What really bugs me is seeing new construction (and there’s tons of it in the North Dallas area) with vast expanses of unshaded roof space (the first thing developers do is cut down all the trees) and nary a solar panel to be seen. I lease a PV system from Solar City; they installed it at no cost and maintain it, in exchange for a 20-year lease. I’ve compared my costs before and after and while I’m not saving money (I spent a net $20 more over the past year than if I’d not had the panels) I’ve generated about 2/3 of the power I’ve used in the past year. A lot of that got sold back to the grid at wholesale rates. If every new house had a PV system (even a grid-tied one) installed from the get-go imagine how much less new energy capacity would be demanded by those developments! It boggles my mind that this isn’t done.

          I’ve seen tracker arrays (the Kohl’s headquarters campus up by UTD has some in their parking lot that double as a kind of poor man’s covered parking) and while they’re nice, I’m leery of the maintenance issues that come with having those moving parts. Middle and lower-income households may not be able to afford them.

  • Peterr

    And then there are the rules of certain home owners associations that prohibit solar panels because they destroy the visual ambiance of the neighborhood and will bring down property values.

    Yes, this is how some of these folks think. Drove me nuts when looking to buy a home several years ago.

    • liberalrob

      It would seem to be an excellent indicator of neighborhoods to avoid…

  • The Dark Avenger

    I played the role of Burt in a production of Send Me No Flowers(set in the early 60s)a while back, and there’s one line about how the house of the protagonist and his wife(in an unnamed suburb) is about 1500 sq ft and Bert says he never saw a (suburban)house that small before.

  • nocomment

    That house has to be somewhere in Germany. Seriously desirable looking.

  • slightly_peeved

    Part of the charm of the solar suburbs idea is that it isn’t a revolutionary concept being trialled by urban planners so much as a natural extension of current Australian suburbs. With renewable energy credits, it ends up being under $10000 for a solar system that will severely reduce if not eliminate your electricity bill. There’d be widespread outrage at any planning department that turned it down on aesthetic grounds. Take up has been massive, to the point that there’s a big drop in power demand from other sources every afternoon. In the suburb I’m driving past now, I’m seeing them on every third or fourth roof. That’s the reason Australia is the test market for Tesla’s powerwall system.

    I think solar takeup is somewhat orthogonal to issues of urban sprawl. Housing prices are moving Australians towards higher density living, smaller backyards, and energy self-sufficiency. And convincing people to take up solar panels has been far, far easier than convincing them to move into apartments. Convincing middle class Australians to gentrify their homes is the easiest goddamn job in the world

  • NewishLawyer

    Serious question,

    how do urban advocates deal with the fact that the United States has a lot of space?

    I totally get the arguments about why urban and dense living is better for the environment, health, and potentially mental health at large and largely agree with them. I like walkability.

    I also can see why a family with kid(s) would not want to live in a small apartment and why a single-family household is appealing.

    The United States has lots of space. How do you convince people to live close together when there might not be a need.

    Yes I get the true costs argument but in a democracy, no group is ever going to vote for the true cost of everything and any attempt to impose it from above will be ended quickly.

    • witlesschum

      I think the only real way is to convince them there is a need to live more densely. Which, unfortunately, is probably going to take some serious climate crisis events which don’t just devastate faraway people and places, but send ripple effects through the world economy and force people to sit up and take notice.

      The main thing I can think of is try to encourage municipalities to provide more and more examples of neighborhoods which feature denser living in every city, which leads to more people trying it, which will lead to more people getting over some of there fears or worries about it when they try it. Or at least house some of those who don’t give a damn in that kind of way.

      • L2P

        Or perhaps there isn’t going to be any climate crisis serious enough to force people into urban living. It’s hard to imagine anything that will make a vast majority of people want to live in apartments. I have a friend in Santa Clarita who drives about 500 miles a week, which costs him about $100. If the cost of gas doubled, he wouldn’t be hurt by the extra $100. He’s staying. If it quintupled, he’s going to spend the extra $300 and stay. And there’s millions of people just like him. He wants to live in a suburban community, with big lots and driving to businesses and so on.

        Frankly, I’m not sure how we make dense living work for most people who want families. It’s just too fucking hard. Want to do soccer? That 30 minute AYSO game is now 2 hours, what with traffic, parking, and so on (there’s a ton of people at those parks). Want to play piano? That 30 minute lesson is now an hour and a half. Have a school event during the day? Forget it, you have to call in sick.

        I have yet to see anyone with an answer to that. The only answer seems to be get a job as a writer, academic, pundit, or so on where you don’t have regular hours, or don’t have kids.

        • Origami Isopod

          Frankly, I’m not sure how we make dense living work for most people who want families.

          Works perfectly fine in many other countries.

          • liberalrob

            In many other countries they don’t have a choice but to live densely, for a variety of reasons.

  • JonH

    Here in central Connecticut, solar panels are popping up on quite a few homes. We even get telemarketer calls from solar panel outfits.

    Also, shopping malls are somewhat in decline, I think. At the “smaller” malls, crappy pop-up shops and mid-mall kiosks play more of a role. Old mainstays like bookstores, music stores, chain drug stores like CVS, Radio Shack, chain toy stores like K-B, etc are gone.

    I’m not actually sure malls are that bad, though, compared to strip malls and big-box stores. At least you could do a lot of shopping at a lot of stores with just one trip in the car. These days you might have to visit three different strip malls or big-box stores.

    • Rob in CT

      Connecticut has an aggressive subsidy program. It’s one of those things that makes me proud of the state. It’s well-designed and properly funded, IMO.

  • That’s almost certainly a German house in the picture.

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