Imagine that you could travel in time, much like Doc Brown and Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future. Suppose you traveled back to 1955 with the Doc and Marty and asked a resident of 1955 what the year 2011 would be like. Would he predict hybrid cars, or flying cars? Would he believe that the United States has a moon base -- or that is has no moon program at all? Would he believe that kids carry cell phones but that the only commercial viable robot is the Roomba vacuum? Someone living in 1955 would probably predict a future much different from the one we are actually living today. When you consider how life in the future was depicted in movies, TV programs, and books in the middle of the 20th century, it easy to see that our predictions about the future and about worlds based on different technologies and alternate energies technology are not always right.
Today, most energy used in the United States is generated from sources that use coal, oil, or natural gas, either directly or as a way to generate electricity. A small percentage of electricity is generated from alternative fuels such as solar power, wind, biofuels, geothermal power, water power, or other sources. People in the modern United States relies heavily on the same old highly-polluting fuels it has been using -- and using up -- for decades, but society seems to be moving slowly toward greater use of alternate energy sources. Research into alternate energy is a growing field and more sources of energy are being developed and put into use every day. Is energy interchangeable or will changing the basic source of energy in the United States radically change daily life?
Many people believe that alternate energy sources could have a large impact on common aspects of daily life. But how would home life, transportation and travel, entertainment, or eating habits really change in the United States if the country were to rely mainly on alternative forms of energy as fuel? Some people believe that the future can be easily discerned by tracing the developments being made at present, but that isn't always the case. Technology and society are both complex, and the capabilities we may believe we are on the verge of achieving may be much farther away than we think -- while meanwhile, as history shows, the next hot thing could turn out to be something we would never guess.
It would seem ironic at first glance at on the U.S. Department of Energy's web page about how to use solar energy, the 5-point list includes the use of a clothesline to dry clothes (U.S. Department of Energy, 2011, para 2). When people think about using solar power in the home, they are probably quick to envision gleaming black solar energy-collector panels strategically mounted on a rooftop, collecting the sun's rays and transforming them into electricity. The average person's short list of how to use solar energy probably doesn't even include laundry. Yet the sun has been the primary source of dried laundry for thousands of years. One hundred years ago, clotheslines were in common use in houses all over the United States, while today, nearly all laundry is instead dried using an electric-powered clothes dryer appliance. And yet the simple clothesline has the advantage of being the most direct way to use solar energy in the home, and also of being the cheapest way to dry clothing.
As a student, I don't have a sunny backyard in which to hang a clothesline, but like many students, I'm familiar with the concept of drying clothes outside of dryers. Many students, wishing to save their quarters for better activities, make use of alternate energy sources like solar rays or wind, by laying their clothes out to dry. In the summer, daily life wouldn't change much if people were to use the sun to dry their clothes. In the winter, however, most people would have to dry their clothes indoors, and would probably consider doing so a big hassle. Still, the clothesline is still common and familiar enough that if people had to give up the use of their dryer, they would probably manage well enough without big changes in their daily home life.
The more easily-envisioned futuristic use of solar power would involve using roof-mounted solar panels to collect energy for home use. In recent years, many solar panel dealers have begun to market their products to homeowners in the United States, touting the green qualities of their products, claiming that solar energy can be collected cheaply, and that excess energy can sometimes even be sold back to the local power company. These touted benefits are not always the case, although better systems are developed every year that can collect more energy at a lower cost.
The idea of selling electricity back to the power company may be particular compelling for Americans given the rise in fuel costs in recent years. Most homeowners wouldn't mind making money passively through their home-based solar energy collectors, and many might feel inspired to install additional solar energy collection systems just to collect extra energy. The practicality of collecting and selling electricity would vary from one state to another, and even between years, based on weather trends. Homeowners in sunny Florida would benefit from solar power systems more than homeowners in rainy Seattle. Installing a solar collection system can be costly, and such systems are currently estimated to take three to four years to pay back the initial investment (Home Energy, p5). I can easily envision installing such a system on my own home without the installation of the system itself making a big change in daily life.
Today, nearly all homes using solar collection systems still also use electricity from the local power grid, as solar systems rarely provide all the energy needed by a home, and homeowners prefer to know that energy is available even on gloomy days.(SOURCE? Loftin?) Should every home invest in its own solar energy system and become independent of the power grid, homeowners would have to pay closer attention to their home energy production and consumption rates, perhaps even sharply limiting their use of electricity in some circumstances. In a standard home in the United States, however, solar power would likely be unable to supply all a home's needs. Relying on solar power would mean risking a lack of power. Relying on an unreliable power source sounds less like the wave of the future than like living in an undeveloped nation: imagine living with the regular fear of brown-outs or black-outs always at the top of the mind instead of a rarity. Daily life in a United States were each house relied on its own solar collectors for electricity would be much different if people could not count on electricity being available all the time. People would feel less like they are living in a highly developed nation and more like they are living in the underdeveloped world. They would have to be very careful about their electronics, since electronics can be very sensitive to fluctuations in power and could be harmed when it went on, off, or simply faded. Some electronics could be protected by connecting them to uninterruptible, battery-powered devices called UPS devices, which store electricity and help even out brownouts or signal electronics to turn off if the power goes out. But unreliable power would also affect home appliances and change the way people cooked and stored food, and perhaps even how they cleaned clothes and dishes. Such a possibility could become common in daily life if homes in the United States converted to solar energy using systems like those produced and available on the market today. While the environment might benefit from the use of solar energy in the home, homeowners might not like the change very much.
It is possible, even today, to design and build houses that could make independent use of solar power. Making the use of independent solar power practical would require many changes in the design or structure of most homes today, such as the installation of highly energy efficient windows, extra insulation, extremely energy-efficient appliances, and highly efficient lighting such as perhaps LED-based lighting (Beggs, 2011, para 2). A brand new home with the best of modern technology and a large solar-panel array could hope to rely solely on solar power. However, if the United States converted to solar power for homes today, only a few homes in the United States could fully power themselves. Wealthy homeowners might be able to retrofit their homes, but homeowners with more modest budgets might have trouble. The ability to build or retrofit a house to fit within the electricity usage profile necessary for solar power could create different classes of Americans, those with enough electricity, and those without. The presence of social classes based on the availability of electricity would certainly change daily life for…