Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Here Comes the Sun

When it comes to earth stewardship, there always seems to be a huge motivation gap between action and inaction. Simply believing in the benefit of protecting the earth will not be enough to tackle the growing dilemma that faces future generations; that much is clear. But the step from word to deed often becomes a stumbling block for those who see the forest for the trees, but can’t bring themselves to step into the forest and plant a few trees. Such was the predicament for Nick Mason, professor of English at BYU and director of the European Studies program.

Professor Mason was acutely aware of the nation’s need for a dramatically altered mindset about earth stewardship, perhaps more so than most, as he observed the cultural and political “green” revolution occurring in Europe. Countries such as Germany, Norway, Iceland, and Portugal all rely heavily on clean renewable energy in its various forms, and the US is hard-pressed to keep up with their innovation. The final push for Professor Mason to take action came from a Salt Lake Tribune article from 2012 entitled “High noon for solar” that clearly expressed the nature of our nation’s future energy problems. “There are basically two ways to produce electricity,” Mason recalls. “We dig holes in mountains then transport and use dirty fuels in factories, or we use solar panels and wind turbines, renewable energy.” The right answer seemed clear: it was time to make a change.

In 2012, Professor Mason decided to invest in roof-installed solar panels to power his home. The change wasn’t an easy or cheap decision, but Professor Mason is sure that the investment will pay off, in more ways than one. So far, Mason has installed 26 panels on his roof, each of which cost close to $1,000. Yes, this is a bit beyond the financial reach of lower-income families or college students, but well within the budget for middle-class families with a steady income. There are also plenty of government incentives to help with costs; the federal government can provide a 30% rebate on each panel, and the state of Utah will also assist with a percentage of the costs (up to $2,000); these rebates bring the price of individual panels down to about $650. Professor Mason’s home now receives about 90% of its power from the panels, and the other ten percent he receives from the grid. The panels are installed on the south side of his roof, which he says maximizes the amount of sunlight that the panels will be exposed to throughout the day. On a good day (most likely during the summer), according to Professor Mason, his panels will produce about 40 kilowatt-hours, or $4 worth, of electricity. In other states, where energy costs from the grid are higher (like in California), consumers stand to save much more, and there are many more options for installation. Some companies install panels for free, essentially leasing your roof for 20-25 years and passing along all of the environmental and a portion of the financial benefits to the homeowner. Other companies will actually build your house with solar panels already installed. Both of these programs save homeowners the cost of installing the panels separately, and as electricity costs from gas and coal utilities continue to increase, the demand for and savings from solar will increase as well.

Many solar installations today, including Professor Mason’s, come with Enphase tracking technology, which allows solar owners to receive real-time and long-term data on how much energy their system is producing. The system is intuitive, well-designed and easy to use; it provides information about environmental impact and cost-efficiency in easy-to-understand tables and graphics.

For most solar owners there will be almost no maintenance needed to keep their system running at top capacity. That being said, in regions with cold winters, snow and ice build-up on the panels can significantly decrease production. In most cases, as long as the panels are installed at a steep enough angle, the snow will simply slide off. However, when accessible, panels on flatter roofs might need to be brushed off occasionally. Fortunately, the function of panels is to collect light, so as long as the panels are clear of snow, any light (even through clouds) will produce electricity. Although the panels don’t use heat to collect energy, heat can actually affect the efficiency of panels; temperatures between 50° and 80° F are the most efficient, while anything over 100° can actually decrease efficiency. This explains why places like Germany and several Scandinavian countries can rely on solar for much of their energy needs, even when they experience long periods of overcast weather.

Professor Mason is surprised that more people in Utah don’t use solar panels, considering all the incentives for thrifty people who want freedom from pricey monthly energy bills. The use of solar panels in Utah is divided roughly in half, between the environmentally-minded and those who are serious about emergency preparedness. While Professor Mason would place himself firmly in the former category, he also sees the solar panels as an act of faith. He takes seriously our role as stewards of the earth, believing we have a moral responsibility to leave it at least as healthy as we found it.

“Preaching the gospel of environmental stewardship is undoubtedly important,” he says. “But ultimately actions do more than words to improve our air quality and preserve our lands.” For the Masons, becoming more eco-friendly involves the whole family. From changing traditional light bulbs to energy-efficient LED bulbs, to using Energy Star certified appliances, and even installing more efficient windows, the effort to reduce their carbon footprint has become something of a hobby for the Mason family. Professor Mason recently invested in an electric car (he now powers his house and his car with solar panels), and his oldest son is working on an Eagle Scout project that involves bringing awareness of renewable energy and its benefits to the city of Provo.

In sum, the Masons have put their faith into action and made earth stewardship a priority. Professor Mason’s message to other families is simple: middle-class families can afford to do more in protecting our environment, but the environment can’t afford more complacency. If that means starting small (i.e. investing $2,000 in three panels) and building up from there, so be it. With small and simple actions now, modern families can make an immediate impact on air quality, help reduce global warming, and preserve the earth for future generations to enjoy.