Commentary
7:15 am
Tue May 6, 2014

New Ways of Thinking

Solar panels
Credit Mike Baker / Flickr Creative Commons

When thinking about how much we are willing to do to prevent climate change, University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha wonders if we worry too much about economics alone.

Questions and comments often come up when I start talking about renewable energy. They go something like this: “I would like to install solar panels, but the payback time is just too long.” Or, when I bought a hybrid car ten years ago, friends said, “That’s nice, but how long will it take for gas savings to make up for the extra cost?”

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with those questions. In fact, economists tell us that we are rational, alert, information-processing machines. But the reality is that we don’t behave like that at all in most of our daily lives.

Maybe we need to imagine questions about energy a bit differently. Why does someone buy a BMW or a Lexus instead of a Chevy? It certainly isn’t financially rational - luxury cars cost more than other models, and you lose $10,000 in value just driving the BMW off the dealer’s lot. How long does it take for the difference in cost between a BMW and a cheaper car to pay off? Or, for the choice to get a nicer stereo system in your Ford? If you choose a marble countertop or a fancy oven for the kitchen in your home, will that have a payback?

We do many things in life simply because we want to. The payback is our immediate pleasure – not dollars. We seem to hold renewable energy and other energy-efficient technologies to a much higher standard – whereas, in fact, they do pay off financially, even if it takes some time.

What we need to do is start recognizing the pleasure that comes with knowing that our electricity or hot water is coming from the sun shining on our roof, or that energy-efficient appliances and cars are helping the environment. The fact that we can also save money in the long-run is an added benefit.

Bob Brecha is a professor of physics and renewable and clean energy. He is the coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and The Environment program at the University of Dayton.