Years ago, when I was in high school, a teacher posed the question: if there were two pairs of jeans in your size on a rack: one with an elite label, and an identical pair without the label at half the price, which would you buy? The more progressive thinkers admitted that the label should not be important, that a fool and his money were soon parted and that the label-less jeans would be preferable.
But there were skeptics. These were usually the people who’d spent a lot of money buying the label. They bravely argued for the desirability of jeans with designer labels, and suffered the mild derision of the teacher and us nerds who didn’t understand their allure. What the skeptics knew, but didn’t know how to express, was that the the existence of a rack of the exact replicas of label jeans sans label didn’t exist; it was a straw man (And anyhow, why was he being such a jerk by making us feel stupid for buying nice jeans?). There was value in designer jeans in the sense that they were better than the non-label jeans that you could buy at the time,
So here’s a related scenario to consider. If you were building a warehouse, and you had a choice between powering it with solar power or far more cost-efficient hydro/gas, which would you choose? In this scenario, solar power is the designer label. It’s far more costly, and can’t produce any more power than the cheaper alternative of hydro/gas. Using the logic of the jeans scenario, most of us choose the cheaper hydro/gas alternative. But as in the jeans scenario, there are skeptics who see value in paying more.
Of course this scenario is a bit of a logical stretch, but our reasoning tends to be consistent. There seems to be a moral imperative in our society to get the cheaper product if it does the job as well as the other. Solar panels are very expensive and they would take about 15 years to provide enough off-grid power to pay for themselves. Therefore solar-powered buildings don’t get produced.
This decision would be common-sensical if it weren’t for the fact that solar power is much cleaner (I’m assuming that the environmental benefit of the manufacturing of solar panels does not outweigh their impact.) Unfortunately, environmental impact is not a factor that plays into the decision of builders to install solar power or not.
I suggest that we have become too dogmatic about efficiency. If our first question is “How much does it cost?”, we’re focussed on the wrong issue. Our future as a species on this earth depends on our answers to other questions. “What is the long term effect on climate change” should be a more important priority than “How much does it cost?”
We need to start including environmental impact as a factor in our decision making. We need to stop thinking of clean energy as “alternative sources”. There is real value in clean energy, and we can afford it.