Can Solar Energy Have Social Impact?

Is converting to solar energy from traditional hydro and fossil fuel sources a form of ‘social capitalism?’ If it is a form of social capital, wouldn’t it make sense to have faith based organizations, schools, and non-profits benefit from the substantial cost savings of generating power from the sun’s abundant (and free) energy, so they can provide more good in our world?

As human beings we all have what Abraham H. Maslow described in 1954 as our hierarchy of human needs. From lowest to highest, these five needs are: Physiological, Safety, Social Belonging, Esteem, and finally Self Actualization. So what do these mean to us?

Physiological needs are the basic needs we all have just to survive on our planet. these include having adequate air, water, food, clothing and shelter.

Safety needs are listed next in this hierarchy; things like a safe place to live and a reliable source of income, good health, and of course healthcare insurance so we are not financially devastated if we become very sick or suffer an accident.

Next on our list of needs come Social Belonging, according to Maslow. This describes the need for connecting with other people, whether in friendships, families or with loved ones. This interconnectedness with other people can take many forms, but is usually demonstrated by the types of bonds we form through our familial ties, workplaces, clubs and faith based groups. In today’s day and age billions of people use a digital form of this through the likes (pun intended) of Facebook.

Fourth on the ladder is Esteem. This is described as the need for respect, especially self-respect. We humans will pursue professions and develop skills that we believe will both, add value to, and derive respect from, other people. This is part of what drives us to achieve worthy goals. Interestingly, Maslow describes a lower version and a higher version of esteem. The lower version is more driven by attention seeking for status, fame, and prestige; while the higher version is manifested as self-confidence, competence, and inner strength..

The highest need Maslow describes is that of a person that has mastered all of the lower needs on the hierarchy, and has reached a point of Self Actualization in their life, where they wish to reach their full potential as a human being; to achieve all that they feel destined to achieve. For some this may mean being the best parent they can possibly be. For others it means excelling in art or science or athletics. This level of the hierarchy means your goals are more geared toward serving others and is much  bigger than just satisfying your own desires. I would define this as love, a love of self and a love of others.

So what does this have to do with solar energy, you ask? Here’s my take on it…

When most people hear about solar energy they usually limit their vision to clean, long lasting, sustainable electrical energy, directly from the sun. No harmful smoke, residues, or byproducts of any kind are emitted into our environment from this energy source. These attributes are all true, however, I would argue there is a much bigger perspective. Energy, in all forms, are required for us to survive and thrive on our planet, right down to the mitochondria that power the cells in our bodies. Our sun literally powers all life on earth, and provides its life giving energy to both plants and animals.

Most people have reached the third level of the ‘needs hierarchy’ and those of us that are trying to operate at the fourth and fifth levels, [healthy] Esteem and Self Actualization, have limited resources to serve others in a way that lifts them up. Having access to affordable electricity to cook our food, heat our homes, and power our cell phones, is taken for granted. That is until we don’t have access to it or we cannot afford it anymore. Because we have become dependent on electricity, we have incorporated it into our lives in a way that permeates the first and second rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy ladder: physiological and safety needs. And wouldn’t it be a “disaster” if we couldn’t connect with all of our “friends” on Facebook?

Here is where I believe solar energy comes into play. The Northwestern US, primarily Washington and Oregon, have access to plenty of electric power because of the large dams that generate hydroelectricty. As a result of our geography, electricity rates are relatively cheap compared to places like California where average rates are 50% higher. More importantly, electricity rates from hydro, coal, natural gas, and nuclear, all increase over time. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 2003 to 2014, Oregon and Washington’s electric rates have increased 43.5% and 38.5%, averaging 4.3% and 3.5% annual increases respectively. Without any structural changes to how we’re generating power, these increases are likely to continue unabated into the future.

In contrast, the cost to convert to solar energy (according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratories) have decreased by an average of 6% to 8% annually since 1998. Because of this powerful trend, it is now possible for smaller entities like churches, schools, and other non-profits to benefit from the power of the sun to generate much lower cost electricity.

Tying this all together.

By their mandate, faith based organizations such as churches, as well as schools and other non-profits are structured to serve others; right in the ‘bullseye’ of Maslow’s highest level; Self Actualization. If a person (or entity) is to be truly ‘self actualized,’ their mindset and focus is on serving more than just themselves; to serve others in a way that benefits the whole of society.  By improving the budget of these organizations through large cost savings on line items such as electric utility rates, more of the organization’s resources can be dedicated to serving their larger purpose. this includes providing ministry and subsistence to those in need; providing a lifeline to those who just need someone to ‘step in the gap’ when they’ve experienced one of life’s ‘curve balls.’

Providing a way for our benevolent organizations to maximize their resources so they can, in turn, benefit more of those that just need a hand up (versus a handout), we are expanding the universe of people that can ascend the Maslow hierarchy to our highest ideals. This benefits all of us.

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