Ugly Solar Telephone Poles

In suburban New Jersey, solar panels are being installed on telephone poles.   The people are debating whether this is progress. 

A few quotes from the NY Times article;  “Sean Smith, a 43-year-old airline sales supervisor in Fair Lawn, said he was fine with the seven panels on his street, especially “if it’s helping the greenhouse effect.” “We have the kids to think about,” he said.”  

Others disagree;    “”I hate them,” Mr. Olsen, 40, said of the row of panels attached to electrical poles across the street. “It’s just an eyesore.”  Around the corner lives Tom Trobiano, 61, a liquor salesman, now adapting to the lone solar panel hanging over his driveway. “When it’s up close,” he said, “the panel takes on a life of its own.””

The interesting issue here is “green civic engagement”.     The solar poles may be ugly and change the look of the streets but if a person cares enough about climate change then on net this is a “win” for the suburban New Jersey town.   Now, a realist would say that New Jersey is too small to change the world but such free rider logic only resonates with an economist.   The surprising willingness to not free ride and to step up is an ongoing topic in social science research.  Dora L. Costa and I studied this years ago in the context of who deserts during war time.  In the U.S Civil War, desertion was the rational strategy to survive the war but it is the ultimate free riding.    A broader overview of this work is posted  here  .    Returning to environmental issues, who is civically engaged?   My findings won’t shock you.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

11 thoughts on “Ugly Solar Telephone Poles”

  1. This is a high ignorance area for me, so there may be a technical problem here, but — how about this? Intead of one large rectangular panel, mount a vertical array of smaller ones, spaced just far enough apart to avoid shading each other, similar in width to the pole itself? Same effect, far less visually obtrusive. Might even be more durable in, say, hail or high wind conditions.

  2. I think that the driveways, cars, and chain link fences pictured are at least as ugly as the solar panels. Which goes to show that this is more about what you are “used to” seeing — and also about somehow never thinking about how ugly the features of your own existence might look to others.

  3. Along Barbara’s excellent points, I frequently dislike power lines strung around everywhere. And that tree in the center is limbed up waaaay too high and may become a hazard. And the unkempt, too-narrow treelawns…ick.

    IOW: they’ll get used to it. They got used to all that other unsightly stuff.

  4. Will the ongoing maintenance costs outweigh the energy inputs to the grid, long run?

    I worry that decentralized power generation ends up being inefficient because of theft / damage / expensive installation per panel / etc.

    Or put another way, is it more efficient to have the same number of solar panels, only packed onto a single large roof.

  5. Matthew: that link doesn’t go to your “findings.” No offense, but if I am too broke to drive a hybrid, what makes you think I’d pay to read an economist? If you find out something really important, it will be in the NYT.

  6. Telephone poles are dumb place to put the solar panels – look at the tree shading – and only chosen because they are “free” to the utility (as in “free rider”). Telephone poles are an eyesore anyway and all cables should be buried in residential areas and city centres. There are plenty of better places: factory and school roofs, supermarket car parks.

    And BTW, see here for what a pylon for a high-voltage power line, very expensive to bury, can look like.

  7. I aspire to own a solar panel on a pole, frankly, and to my eye the panels make the phone poles look a lot better. (And yes I’d feel the same if that were my street.)

    They look a bit small to me, though. I agree with James W; shading a parking lot or a school roof with a lot of larger panels would provide more energy and would conserve on air conditioning.

  8. It so happens my current work includes solar access planes and their preservation. I appreciate Mobius’ point about decentralized power generation ends up being inefficient because of theft / damage / expensive installation per panel / etc. There is a point where tiny little panels into the grid don’t make sense, and positioning like in the NYT photo IMHO is too vulnerable to vandalism or theft. Residential and commercial roofs are less vulnerable. The flexibility distributed generation can offer (when the bugs are worked out) makes it valuable in the long run.

  9. Decentralized power generation is inefficient? Are you aware of the the percentage of loss due to long distance power transmission?

    I have seen some of the panels installed in parts of Southern New Jersey, and in very heavily treed areas, they aren’t done like the ones in the picture. They will be in areas where they can get enough sun. Also, it isn’t always just one panel per pole, although they don’t tend to be large arrays. They are also hardly ubiquitous on a lot of streets. Something I do not see clearly, are large inverter box setups on the panels that are used in larger installs.

    I have twenty six panels on my roof (215W each) and the two strings of eight require 1 inverter, and the string of 10 its own. For the installation I received a 50 percent subsidy from the power company via the state, tax credits and variable income form Renewable Energy Credits.

    So from an overall effectiveness standpoint, is my installation more or less effective than putting twenty six of these beasts on poles and tying them to the grid?

    Believe it or not, the siting of panels is only done after study of the estimated available sunlight available. If the panels would interfere with each other (and panels at the same height will not), they wouldn’t go up. As to theft, placing an array on a nice flat commercial roof in an isolated area is a far more tempting target,than having to go up utility poles with a tall ladder or bucket truck, and taking the risks of electrocuting oneself for the sake of a single panel.

    I see a whole lot of NIMBY in the article, and not a whole lot of facts coming from the whiners! Wait until they start doing demonstration projects on LED lights on the poles, and the nature of the lighting changes. Let me guess, the more directed and less dispersion of light will be a crime concern?

  10. I think RickG has an important point with respect to security. The kind of damage you really want to worry about is wholesale, not retail. And large unattended installations offer big single points of failure. The distributed approach is harder and less profitable to attack.

    And yeah, they’re doing it because a lot of the typical installation cost (land, grid access, mounting structures) is essentially free. But if you’re going to complain about that you should be working on the market failure that makes it difficult for utilities to offer (and people and businesses to accept) deep subsidies for installation elsewhere.

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