When I think of the word “sustainability,” I imagine lasting value based on reliability, efficiency, dependability, availability, affordability, and consistency — factors treasured by all manufacturers in the electronics industry. Though many other words may also apply, in general, these characteristics not only assure a long lifecycle, but when taken into consideration at the earliest conception and design stages, they also raise the probability of having a successful product or service.
When it comes to sustainable products or services, some of the same principles that make for a long-term relationship also apply. In a very general sense, we already have a pretty good understanding about what it takes to sustain a relationship involving two human beings. Failure to sustain the relationship dissolves into a breakup. Sooner or later, every relationship has to be renewed, replaced, or abandoned altogether.
If sustainability is a function of specific, targeted efforts as in a human relationship, then identifying the efforts, securing the necessary cooperations, and having a measurable outcome are all paramount to success. If one has to put in more effort than is deemed worthwhile, then the overall effort will be halfhearted and unlikely to yield positive results. Furthermore, if more material and energy resources are required to keep a product alive than would be required to create a whole new product, there is little economic reason to sustain the old product.
One key to sustainability is lessening the material and energy overhead such that the product's value equals or exceeds the value of a brand new or replacement product. When we consider solar energy as a potential sustainable supply, we have to consider the efficiencies and the costs of, not just the solar panels, but the battery storage systems, maintenance, power routing, and other equipment. While it is true that the sun's energy is free, harvesting it is relatively expensive and, watt for watt, still costs more than other common, unsustainable fuel sources.
When the efficiencies and cost-savings surpass the alternatives, we will see vast sales and deployments of solar equipment. Notwithstanding, the people who will be able to fund this solar product manufacturing will most likely be the same people who now profit off of excessive prices for our current alternatives.
Sustainability does not only imply that a resource never runs out, but that the cost associated with harvesting and processing that resource into a finished product or service is cheaper than the unsustainable practice. People pay more for organic vegetables because of an understanding that better health for the consumer and the environment is real and verifiable. People will not make the same sacrifice for energy as long as the oil keeps flowing and their cars keep getting them to work every day.
It will be years — perhaps too many — before we will hear that solar energy is a viable alternative to fossil fuel in more than just a few target markets. However, with a diminishing and finite supply of fossil fuels, it is just a matter of time before solar and wind will be the cheapest energy sources on the planet. Personally, if I were the Earth, I would be looking forward to that day.