Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Greening of Hype

How solar panels generate more free publicity than clean electricity for businesses.

Westport Wash & Wax proudly bills itself as the only solar-powered carwash in the state of Connecticut. The proprietors, brothers Craig and Scott Tiefenthaler, have just covered the roof of their business with 18 panels. The total cost: $21,000, with the state's taxpayers footing 60 percent of the bill.

This sort of behavior drives economists and global-warming skeptics to distraction. Even with the massive government subsidy, it'll take seven years for the owners to recoup their investment. And on sunny days, the panels provide only enough juice to run the shop's refrigerators and lights.

"To run my main motors, I'd need a city block of solar panels," says Craig.At first blush, the carwash has all the hallmarks of a greenwash: a feel-good gesture that detracts attention from painful efforts that could really influence energy use. People who are serious about using less energy could skip the carwash altogether and bathe their vehicles with a hose and cold water. And if they're truly freaked out about global warming, perhaps they should drive their Porsche Cayenne SUVs less frequently.

But the Tiefenthalers, who have no advertising budget, have clearly made an economically rational choice. Within two weeks of installing the panels in August, the carwash was featured in the two local newspapers, a Web site covering Westport, and the cable-news channel that covers Fairfield County. The New York Times has called, too. "We regard it as an effective form of advertising because of the image we're trying to maintain and create," Craig says.

For companies large and small, going green is now a surefire way to cut through the clutter. A recent issue of the New York Times travel section included a brief article—complete with Web address—describing in loving detail the features of the Proximity Hotel, a green inn in Greensboro, N.C. Some hot hotels feature roofs with happening pool scenes. The Proximity's roof features solar panels and a vegetable garden....

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