Acton Institute Powerblog

The Luxury of Solar-Powered Simplicity

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Dee-Tiny-HouseThere is a kind of trendy “green” simplicity that is a luxury only the comparatively wealthy can afford, says Dylan Pahman in this week’s Acton Commentary. But there is a movement catching steam that might perfectly encapsulate a type of solar-powered simplicity:

The tiny house movement is a recent trend in the United States for building and living in eco-friendly domiciles about half the average size of an apartment. Graham Hill, a tiny house architect, described his philosophy in the New York Times: “Like the 420-square-foot space I live in, the houses I design contain less stuff and make it easier for owners to live within their means and to limit their environmental footprint.”

Among the tiny house online community, there is a healthy realism despite the otherwise romantic appeal. Melissa Tack, who built and lives in a tiny house with her husband Chris, recently reflected, “This isn’t the life for everyone, people find their happ[iness] in many different ways. I have a friend that finds her happiness in 8-12 cups of coffee a day, and others that enjoy spending their time with friends and family. Living in a Tiny House is what you make it to be.”

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Well said!

    If I may, this is why Christians need to be more forceful in our moral analysis not only of environmentalism but also the whole localism movement. Too often we assume that what we can afford to do in the First World is the solution for the whole world. If for example the localism movement was right than N Korea would be thriving.

    To wax theological for a moment, while the Orthodox Church sees each local Church (i.e., diocese) as truly catholic, the local church’s catholic character is dependent upon its communion with the whole Church and this not only geographically but also temporally.

  • I have no issues with diversifying energy production, but policy just isn’t the answer, especially because what could be recommended in Warsaw couldn’t possibly be the best recommendation everywhere in the whole wide world (AKA the principle of subsidiarity).

    Many argue about the huge amounts of solar energy hitting the planet and how it powers huge weather systems whose energies are unfathomable to man. Indeed, over all the surface of the earth and the thickness of the atmosphere, there’s a huge amount of energy freely getting to our shores. Yet, from planetary scale to human scale, all of the solar energy may not really be available.

    About 1kW reaches every 1m2 of the earth’s surface from the sun… at noon… without clouds… in the summer… on the equator (not precisely). What this means is that, as the author pointed out, the sun doesn’t shine everywhere all the time. In practice this means that the theoretical solar energy available in a day is at most 6kWh/m2. As most of the world population lives between 30 and 45˚ of latitude, this maximum is decreased further by the smaller inclination of the sun above the horizon (it never reaches the zenith in these latitudes) to 4 to 5kWh/m2.

    The best current technologies available to capture solar energy can convert it to electricity with an efficiency of up to 25%. There are experimental technologies that promise 45% efficiency, but they are not available yet and their cost is unknown. Most commercial solar panels achieve 20% efficiency. Therefore, today, one can expect for only 1kWh/m2 in a good, sunny day.

    In a warm spring day, my home in the developed world used about 35kWh (10/12/2013), which would require at least 35m2 of solar panels, preferably 70m2 to make up for cloud cover.

    As for costs, assuming $0.12/kWh from the utilities company and $300/m2 for the solar panels installed, at a total cost of $21000, it would take roughly 14 years for the investment to pay off, not counting maintenance or aging of the solar panels.

    But, as someone who immigrated to a developed country from an underdeveloped one, where my domestic energy usage was only 10 to 20% of it stateside, the solar panels would have to supply only 7kWh and, considering the tropical latitudes, only 6.5m2 would be needed, say 13m2 for good measure, at a total cost of $3900. Assuming the more expensive utilities rate of $0.25/kWh, the solar panels would take about 6 years to pay off.

    Of course, income in the underdeveloped world is smaller, so the capital for such an investment is also scarcer, which increases the opportunity costs. Yet, the smaller area required and the higher cost of energy make the return of the investment more attractive in the third world than in the first world. Granted that not all third-world countries are alike, with mine, Brazil, probably being among the least underdeveloped ones.

    I must say that I started this post agreeing with the author. However, writing it and churching the numbers showed me a different picture. On the other hand, I think that it clearly demonstrates the value of subsidiarity, which apparently both the patriarch and the author ignored: what works in one place at one time, may not work in another.

  • Adam__Baum