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For sustainability to surpass conventional ways of energy and resource use, it has to pay off more obviously than the conventional technologies.Right now, much of it pays off for the wealthy looking to buy indulgences from the public to atone for their fabulous lives. Sustainability does not often make the case that it is actually more profitable up front than the status quo.  Smug is only so valuable.

Conservation measures like solar, instant hot water heaters or graywater systems are not cheap, but they offer payoffs in operations.  A commonly cited statistic is that graywater or solar electric systems can pay for themselves in 10 years.  But they both cost over $10k, typically, for a medium sized home.  But where are you going to get that much scratch?  A good instant hot water heater costs over $600 for a single tap line, almost as expensive as a tanked water heater that serves the whole house.  A electric solar installation costs around $20-30 thousand, as much as an addition on the house.  For  solar, rental is making more sense for houses than buying. Companies buy the solar panels, and rent them out to suitable houses with enough solar exposure.  Graywater systems have only become common where the cost of plumbing is less than the cost of water. Not a common condition, but promising to be come more prevalent

power companies are often asked to invest on negawatts.  Negawatts are the energy term for power they don’t have to generate because of conservation measures by their consumers.  Negawatts only make financial sense if the cost of building a new power plant is greater than the fees the power company is able to charge for that plant.  This is a rare case, but becoming more common with technological and regulatory sophistication in new  power plant construction.  I love when a power generating and vending company helps me to save money I would be giving to them by incenting or even subsidizing better insulation or appliances around my home.  The real pollution problem in American electricity is in transmission, not generation.

The biggest consumer of electricity in America is transmitting electricity between the generating plant and the consumers.  The biggest single consumer of rail freight in America is moving coal from mines and ports to power generating plants.  The system of large power plants pushing electrons through wires is a little over a hundred years old, but has lately become regional and even national.   Arlington County. among others, is looking at this unsung problem.  They are suggesting microgeneration at the local level as a way of localizing power generation.  This is the way towns did it until the 1940s.  We now just have to figure out if we can generate enough electricity locally to power the needs of our towns and cities.  Without the smokestacks, smokestacks don’t symbolize progress anymore.

In the conservation community, the one I know, it is easy to throw terms around like negawatts, solar, and greywater systems as the obvious solutions to problems (and why haven’t we already adopted them, we must be evil).  These things have a cost , and they are chosen or rejected more on price than conservation benefit.  When valuing the Earth for people a hundred years from now versus my home for me and my wife this week, guess which one takes higher precedence?

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