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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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