Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy recently installed three solar panels on their roof, at a cost of $112,000. The claim is that the solar panels will generate enough electricity to “power an average home.” No doubt someone is feeling good about how this investment will be environmentally friendly, reduce greenhouse gases, etc. However, from any rational point of view, this spending is a colossal waste of money.
Let’s assume that an “average home” requires $2,000/year for electricity. This seems a bit high, since we pay much less than that, and we have an electric dryer that is always on. (When you have five kids, you create a lot of laundry.) This means that at 0% interest, the payback period for this “investment” would be 56 years.
I work in the private sector. If I submitted a capital equipment request to my boss, and told him that it would pay for itself in 56 years, he would have my head examined. Most equipment doesn’t even last 56 years, so it won’t even be around to pay for itself. Heck, the entire school will probably not exist in 56 years, at least not with it’s current name. From an economic viewpoint, it makes more sense to take the $112,000, invest it, and use the interest to pay the utilities.
But someone will say that the investment reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is therefore good for the environment, and is worthwhile even if the economic justification is not there. This reasoning doesn’t work either. It takes lots of energy to create, install, and maintain a solar panel. Most solar energy systems use batteries to store energy (otherwise you don’t have electricity at night), and the batteries need to be replaced every decade or so. Also, they are made of toxic chemicals. Popular battery chemistries are Lead-Acid (that’s lead plus sulfuric acid), Nickel-Cadmium (two carcinogens), Nickel-Metal-Hydride, and Lithium-Ion. The creation and replacement of these batteries creates its own environmental difficulties that may outweigh any benefits of reduced emissions.
Finally, solar power works best in the summer. Guess when most of the kids won’t be around to use the energy that is generated?
The school will also use the panels for “research projects.” That is also a waste. If you want to use a solar panel for experiments, you can buy something like this or these and do just as many experiments for a lot less money. Some of these solar panels can even be programmed to follow the sun, and they will generate enough electricity to keep the student’s cell phones charged.
If you are a City of Erie taxpayer, you can console yourself somewhat by knowing that the school district is not wasting Erie citizens’ money. This is funded by a PA Department of Energy grant, so they are wasting the money of all Pennsylvanians.