My economic story starts just before I was born in 2050. When my parents were young and preparing the baby room for my birth, they also took the extra step of registering me for my standard solar energy array.
They contacted their local community solar cooperative, which was installing photovoltaic panels on solar farms in various locations inside and outside our city. My expectant father and pregnant mother signed me up for a ten-kilowatt section of PV panels at the Cloverfield Solar Farm.
Here’s how it worked. My young parents didn’t have the money to buy the panels outright, but they didn’t need to. When they signed me up, the co-op borrowed the money to install the panels with a government-guaranteed loan. The guarantee brought with it government regulation and inspection to prevent fraud.
My parents never had to make payments on that loan. After the co-op installed and connected the PV panels on the solar farm, the co-op sold the electricity to the local electric utility grid. The $1,000 per month the co-op received from the utility company covered the loan payments. The electricity revenue paid back my solar loan by the time I was four years old.
On the day of final payoff, something magical happened: the co-op threw a switch, and the money that had been flowing to the bank to pay the loan instead started flowing into my personal co-op savings account. The money generated by my section of panels accrued to me, minus a small percentage kept by the co-op for maintenance and management.
While I was growing up, between the ages of four and eighteen, the co-op deposited those solar dividends into my personal Solar Fund. The co-op maintained that member account to accumulate the cash that my panels generated. At eighteen, my Solar Fund held about $200,000 in accumulated solar dividends and interest.
I remember my parents taking me to visit my panels on the solar farm. I saw flat panels on racks held up by poles spread over pasture land. The motorized racks slowly turned to always face the sun, like sunflowers. The co-op manager explained that my panels were semitransparent, tuned to absorb orange, yellow and green wavelengths of sunlight to generate electricity, while transparent to the red and blue wavelengths that plants needed for photosynthesis. By passing those wavelengths through, the grass could still grow under the panels as if the panels weren’t there. I remember seeing the purple-colored sun as I looked up through the panels because of the differential filtering of the light.
Dairy cows grazed on the grass growing underneath the panels. I think they appreciated the partial shade on hot days and the shelter on rainy days. The semitransparent panels allowed the co-op to lease the overhead space at a low price, because the land kept its original use for the farmer. That made the arrangement worthwhile for the farmer who continued to pasture her cows while receiving monthly solar lease payments. The land itself benefited from the partial shade, which reduced water evaporation, encouraging the grass to grow lusher for the cows.
I listened to the speech about how my panels generated clean electricity to solve the world’s carbon emissions problem. I also remember that the visit was a bit boring. The panels just sat there in the sun and generated electricity invisible to me and consumed by someone far away. If you’ve seen one solar panel, you’ve seen them all.
I remember one part of the talk: that humans have always relied on energy from the sun to survive and grow. We started by burning wood that sunlight grew, progressed through the fossil fuels created by ancient sunlight, and on to the direct solar and wind systems that power our society today. We’ve always used solar energy, either directly or indirectly, and we always will. My panels represent my piece of that history and future.
While I was still a child, the co-op classified me as a junior member. The co-op still held my solar panels in my name, and I learned how the co-op worked, but I didn’t yet have co-op voting rights. My mother served as a proxy member and voted on my behalf on any co-op issues that came before members. At the age of eighteen I graduated to full co-op membership, taking over the voting rights from my mother.
At eighteen another magical change occurred: the co-op threw a second switch, and the solar money that had been flowing into my co-op savings fund instead flowed directly into my checking account. Every month from the age of eighteen to my current age of forty-nine, I saw a $1,000 electronic deposit from the co-op appear in my bank account. As long as the co-op maintains the equipment, I will continue to receive payments.
The $1,000 comes from selling the 13,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity per year that my ten-kilowatt PV array generates. The co-op sells it to the local utility for $.95 per kwh, and the co-op keeps $.02 per kwh for operating expenses, leaving me with $.93 per kwh. That generates $12,000 for the year, which the co-op divides into twelve payments. So I get a $1,000 solar dividend appearing in my bank account every month.
The money arrives with no strings attached regarding how I use it. It is my personal responsibility to manage my own solar dividends, based on the guidance provided by my parents and the co-op.
I call them my panels, but I don’t actually own them. The co-op retains ownership of the hardware. What I’m granted is the right to the solar dividends the panels generate. I can’t sell my panels because I don’t own them. I can’t mortgage my future solar dividends either, as that would violate co-op rules and cause me to lose my dividends.
I’m glad I don’t own the panels, as my life would be more complicated if I did. If I moved away, I couldn’t easily take them with me, and my new home might not be suitable to mount them. Since I derive only money from the panels (someone else uses the energy), the panels can stay where they are and the co-op can wire the money to me wherever I go.
Why would the co-op be so generous with me? It’s not. I’m a member of a co-op whose stated purpose in its charter is to deliver solar dividends to members. So the co-op is not being generous, it’s fulfilling its purpose. Co-ops differ from corporations because they optimize benefits to members, not to shareholders.
After graduating from high school, I had a nest egg in my Solar Fund and a small income showing up on my bank statement every month, so I was ready to start my adult life. Like many of my peers, I chose to go to college. Education had grown in importance because paid jobs for uneducated people were becoming scarce. Automation was continuing to take over most physical work and menial tasks, so there wasn’t much future in being a laborer.
My solar dividends made it much easier to attend college. I paid my expenses with my monthly dividends, living the frugal life of a student in a shared household. If need be, I had access to my Solar Fund for emergencies. But I tried to preserve that fund, as I anticipated buying a house or starting a business after graduation.
Tuition at most state colleges is free, for two reasons. The first is that research showed how a more highly educated population was more productive, prosperous, and happy, so the investment in education improved society in many ways.
The second reason is solar dividends freed up some money that formerly went to welfare programs. Welfare remained available for those who needed it, but solar dividends enabled a natural attrition off of welfare as people became more self-sufficient through the opportunities solar dividends provided. Governments converted part of the welfare savings into free tuition for state colleges, an investment to help keep people off of welfare.
After college, I took my first job, earning enough money to allow my monthly solar dividends to accumulate again in my Solar Fund. But my employer eliminated my job after four years. The world was continuing its transition to robotics and artificial intelligence, and the company automated my job out from under me.
After my layoff, I fell back on my solar dividends, living in a shared household again. I wanted to work because I preferred to live a lifestyle a cut above that which my basic solar dividends supported. I also derive personal satisfaction from doing worthwhile work and interacting with people.
I took a few classes to improve my qualifications, but paid jobs were scarce. It took a year of searching, but I finally found another job that satisfied me. Without the support of solar dividends, I would have been forced to accept any job. With those dividends I could take time to find a good job.
When I was twenty-five, my solar panels needed replacement after twenty-five years in the sun. Replacement costs were much lower than the original panels because of technological advances while I was growing up. The co-op paid for the replacements out of a fund they had built up for that purpose.
My replacement panels used the latest nano-antenna technology with a fifty-year estimated lifetime, so the co-op will probably not need to replace them until I’m seventy-five. The replacements were also twice as efficient as the old panels. That freed up half the original panel area to support another co-op member.
At twenty-seven I got married, and my spouse and I merged our two solar incomes so we could rent our own apartment. We planned to use our joint Solar Funds to buy a house. Our intention was to start a family and enroll our own children in the solar dividend program because it was such a good experience for us. People joined not because they had to, but because it was valuable to their children. And it cost nothing to sign up.
A few of my friends took different paths, developing their literary, artistic or musical talents instead of working paid jobs. You could take time off, live cheaply, and write that great book or song that floated in the back of your mind. Some were financially successful in their creative efforts, and others lived on the basic support coming from their solar dividends, but no artists were literally starving.
Some people pursue socially beneficial but unpaid activities such as caring for their children or elder relatives, cleaning up the environment, or engaging in social activism. It can be immensely satisfying to put your time and energy into what you believe in.
You don’t get rich on your solar dividends, so most people work to rise above the basic income. Solar dividends gave industrious individuals the means to develop their own businesses. While working regular jobs, they used their solar dividends to buy equipment and supplies, develop marketing materials, and hire help to set up their enterprises.
Some refrain from contributing to society, either from laziness or antisocial hostility, but that’s their choice. Solar dividends grant freedom—freedom from government control of your life through welfare requirements, and freedom from odious and degrading jobs. As long as you don’t harm others, no one objects because you are living on the income from your solar panels.
My parents are now retired and living on a combination of their solar dividends, Social Security, and the investments they made during their lifetimes. I soon must spend time providing more care and support for them in their old age, and I’ll be able to do that with the flexibility granted by my solar dividends.
Now that I’m forty-nine and the kids are out of the house, I’m thinking of becoming an artisan woodcrafter. I’ll use my Solar Fund to set up a shop and use my monthly dividends to support me during my startup. I expect to have a satisfying life of work creating beautiful and useful things, because life is not about being lazy but about expressing one’s own vitality.