Just three days before the terrorist attacks that rocked the nation, Richard Perez, the publisher of the independent renewable energy publication Home Power addressed a packed audience at one of the nations oldest gatherings of wind and solar power enthusiasts. He inspired the audience with a talk about the importance of freedom. Freedom to make one’s own choices, and accepting the responsibilities that come with that freedom.
“By the way, if you want to have a war over oil, leave me out of it- because I don’t think we need it. All I have to say is, go solar! Go wind! Let a little freedom into your life, and help your neighbors stay free, too.”
Richard Perez, Publisher, Home Power Magazine- keynote address, I-Renew Energy Expo, Sept.8, 2001
It has been more than 13 years since Perez gave that speech and the solar landscape has changed immensely. Solar is no longer primarily the purview of off-grid survivalists and back-to-the-land hippies. The installed price of solar has dropped from above $10 per watt to under $4. More states around the nation are encouraging solar development, and the economic benefits of solar are becoming more obvious by the day. And yet, there remains a strong anti-solar contingent in the United States. But why? In post-911 America, isn’t freedom still an American value?
Many will point out the obvious political divide between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, but on closer examination, this separation is relatively superficial in the debate over solar values. Despite the perception that using solar energy to generate power is a “left-coast liberal” idea, using renewable energy sources like wind and solar has long been favored by many extremely conservative individuals. The motivations for using solar may be different for liberals and conservatives, but historically, there has been plenty of interest on both ends of the political spectrum.
Unfortunately for energy consumers (and that includes just about everyone in America) solar has become a strawman for both of Americas big political parties. Before the advent of major debate over climate change in congress, the debate centered simply around how new technologies would mature in this country. “Mandates” or the “free market?” This was the crux of the argument as we entered the 21st century. Now, anti-climate legislation activists paint solar as part of a scheme to raise taxes, while pro-climate legislation activists paint opponents of solar as “anti-science” or the “tools of the oil industry.” In most cases, both parties are arguing points that are peripheral to the central issue: the inevitable move away from the 19th century central station generation model toward a more distributed generation model.
Contrary to popular belief, all large energy companies are not opposed to renewable energy. Both BP and Shell Oil have dipped their toes in the solar market, and Shell executives have been quoted as saying that solar may grow to be the planets biggest power source by mid-century. Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy boasts a generation portfolio that is 30% wind power and growing. Energy companies understand that renewable energy, and solar in particular are coming on strong. However, they want to be in control of the transition. MidAmerican energy fought to keep any and all farmer-owned wind projects off of their grid until economics were right for MidAm to build its own wind farms. Other large utilities see the writing on the wall, with the rapid decline in cost of solar. Some embrace it, others fight it, and because of their powerful political lobbyists, politicians reflect those concerns.
However, more and more political conservatives are recognizing that distributed electrical generation through solar and wind is ultimately the most consistent with their own core conservative values. The central station model and national transmission grid grew from the federal social programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” That infrastructure is aging, and so is the technology. The market needs to be opened up, and individuals deserve the right to make their own energy choices.
Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said that she supports solar development as “a free market issue that gives consumers more choice.”
Although Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has sided with utilities to kill solar development in his state, his neighbor to the South, Governor Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa, has signed an extension of a wildly successful solar tax credit program in his state. Utility company lobbyists are having an increasingly difficult time keeping the lid on solar’s success in the market, and Conservatives are realizing that solar is a “free market” success story, whether they like it or not. It’s hard to argue with the conservative credentials of these solar supporters. Even Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the Conservative icon and former Republican Arizona legislator has been a vocal supporter of solar development.
Among Democrats, the majority support renewable energy development, because of their core value of protecting the environment. BUT… the devil is in the details. Once again, political special interest groups play a major role in how Democratic legislators view the implementation of solar. Unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have traditionally opposed distributed generation, and clung to the central station model because power plants have traditionally employed many IBEW members. Because of their traditional ties to unions, many Democrats prefer to see solar deployed and owned by–wait for it–the large utility companies. One egregious example is in Oklahoma, where a bill to fine individuals who use solar passed 29 Democrats in the state House and 12 Democrats in the state Senate.
As we can see, when focusing on core values, there is a great deal of room for agreement over the value of solar development. Freedom to choose our energy source, freedom to advance new and better technologies, freedom from foreign entanglements over energy and freedom from pollution; It would be hard to find an American who doesn’t share those values. Solar values ARE American values. It’s when special interests get involved that the waters get muddied, and progress stops. And let’s face it… inertia in the marketplace is good ONLY for the old and established businesses. If the US hopes to compete in the global marketplace of the 21st century, it is time to open up the energy market to new technologies. After all, if survivalists and hippies can agree that solar is a good idea, why can’t Republicans and Democrats?