The Future of Solar Power Is Bright

With solar power reliability high and renewable-energy subsidies cheap, we have the power to become the New Greatest Generation by kick-starting solar green energy.

| March 2013

  • Rooftop Revolution
    Signs of solar's ascendency are everywhere. The industry employs 100,000 people in the United States, twice as many as in 2009 and twice the number of coal miners. In “Rooftop Revolution,” Danny Kennedy makes the case for solar power now and explains how it can save our economy—and our planet—from dirty energy.
    Cover Courtesy Berrett-Koehler Publishers

  • Rooftop Revolution

Solar energy critics have been proclaiming that the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra proves solar power is just a hippie pipe dream. But that’s not the case, as Danny Kennedy points out in Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy—and Our Planet—from Dirty Energy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012). In fact, Kennedy gives powerful arguments that solar power can save money, create jobs, and protect the environment—and only politics and perception stand in its way. In the following excerpt, he tackles the (false) claims that subsidies and reliability keep solar energy as only “future technology.” It’s only politics, Kennedy writes, that stands in the way of it becoming “today technology.” 

Some of the cleverer solar energy critics are framing solar energy as a “future technology.” You may have seen ads about fossil-fuel companies “investing in solar for tomorrow,” or the future of solar power, to make themselves out as good guys, concerned about the environment but unable to yet use solar power. This was a lot of the content of the “Beyond Petroleum” BP marketing campaign, even though it spent a factor of 10 times as much on new oil and gas development than on solar in the decade it ran the ads. And in 2011 it shuttered solar operations altogether.

In other words many fossil-fuel interests are peddling the message that they care, but in truth they’re procrastinating. This “not yet” message cracks me up because they know as well as I do that space travel and satellite technology are all solar powered and have been pretty much since we first went into space. Solar is not a future technology but a technology that’s ready for us now—the people here on Earth who are concerned about bills and our energy future.

Fossil-Fuel Subsidies Keep King CONG Going—and Other Not So Big Surprises

Ah, subsidies: King CONG’s favorite fight. And why? Because CONG—better known as the coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas industries—wants you to believe renewable energy is being overly subsidized. Yet all energy is subsidized, especially the fossil-fuel industry. It is currently estimated that here in the United States oil companies are receiving $7,610 per minute in tax breaks—that’s $4 billion per year. And fossil-fuel subsidies are perverse, while renewable-energy subsidies are broadly working. It’s true that there can be problems when politicians pick favorites, like Solyndra, but the most egregious problems are the now-permanent and accepted subsidies provided to the fossil-fuel industry.

The US government’s $50 billion-plus-per-year outlay for conventional energy sources distorts the US energy sector by subsidizing mature companies whose business models and core technologies work well, are insanely profitable, and in many ways dominate markets that are neither highly volatile nor even competitive. The other way our government supports them is to continue to turn a blind eye to their externalities, or true costs—whether that’s maintaining a military presence in the Middle East (to secure our access to oil) or tolerating the intense impact of conventional energy on human health and ecosystems. We have already mentioned the threat to humans in terms of air quality effects and climate change, but conventional energy also degrades our environment, which has an immediate economic cost in terms of diminished resources (such as water). All of these costs should be added in when we tally up the corporate welfare we give these companies.

You can quibble over numbers, but fossil-fuel subsidies far outweigh those for renewable energy. The Environmental Law Institute reckons that the US government gave more than $70 billion worth of subsidies to fossil-fuel companies between 2002 and 2008. In that time about $2 billion went to the solar industry. U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer calculates that the government is committed to spending more than $40 billion to subsidize the fossil-fuel industry from 2011 to 2015, while no more than $10 billion is scheduled to flow into renewable-energy businesses.

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