One of the biggest things the world can do to slow climate change is to cut greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, coal and natural gas.
As of 2013, the energy sector accounted for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So, you can stop cutting down all the trees in the Amazon or Indonesia, and replant trees across the Sahel, but it won’t be anywhere near enough to slow climate change much without getting the world economy off of fossil fuels.
And along with conserving energy and using it more efficiently, the best way to cut fossil fuel emissions is to switch to clean energy.
Solar Is the Best Clean Energy
Solar power is the form of clean energy that’s most shovel-ready right now. Unlike other renewables, which either require large scale like wind, or are nearly tapped out, like hydroelectricity, or just aren’t that promising to begin with, like biofuels (ethanol subsidies, anyone?), solar panels can go almost anywhere. And you don’t need a huge investment to start.
Solar is the only major form of clean energy that’s ready to go at household or neighborhood scale.
You don’t need big utilities or government to install solar. Of course, you can have a few big centralized solar farms to serve an area’s power needs. But you can also serve that same area, perhaps more effectively, with many small solar arrays distributed across rooftops of homes, schools, warehouses and other buildings around the whole community.
And since costs to install solar have come down by more than 70% on average worldwide over the last ten years, the price to go solar is now affordable in more places than ever before. That explains the rapid growth of solar in China, India and other non-western nations.
World Climate Efforts Can Be Destroyed by U.S. Inaction
For people who worry about climate change, big polluters like China and the European Union moving to clean energy is good news. But it’s not enough for other countries to act on climate if the United States doesn’t.
Unless the United States, which is still the world’s largest economy and the world’s biggest cumulative greenhouse gas polluter, switches to clean energy, then whatever the rest of the world does won’t be adequate as a climate solution. As the World Resources Institute explains,
The World’s Top 3 Emitters Contribute 14 Times the Emissions of the Bottom 100
The top three greenhouse gas emitters— China, the European Union and the United States—contribute more than half of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5 percent. Collectively, the top 10 emitters account for nearly three-quarters of global emissions. The world can’t successfully tackle the climate change challenge without significant action from these countries.
So, though the rest of the world may think that they can go it alone on climate and clean energy until Trump is gone, they’re wrong.
Saving the world from climate hell requires those of us who are Americans to save the U.S. first. Americans have a special responsibility to the rest of the world not to give up on climate just because of Trump. There are things we can do to get off of dirty energy even while he’s giving fossil fuels their last hurrah in Washington.
America has been a boulder weighing down world climate efforts long enough. It’s time for us to stop sabotaging the good that everybody else is trying to do on clean energy and start doing our part. Then, we need to do more. We need to go back to what America used to do.
That is, we need to lead the world again on clean energy.
The Best Way America Can Help the World
The most important thing that Americans can do right now for climate and energy is to help make solar power into our nation’s number one energy source. Though solar has grown rapidly in the last few years, solar power is still less than 1% of America’s energy production. We need to bump that way up, and fast.
Fortunately, many things are on our side. At utility scale, solar is now cheaper than most other sources of power, including coal, nuclear and even natural gas. And at home scale, solar has now become so affordable that in top solar states like California, New Jersey or Massachusetts, a solar system saves families money from the day they install it.
Solar is not just for treehuggers and liberals anymore. Today, many conservatives are demanding solar too. That’s why deep red states like South Carolina and Texas have become some of the hottest solar markets in the country.
In polls, solar power always gets high approval ratings from both liberals and conservatives, in all parts of the country. More on that below. Meantime, in the era of Trump when politics is more polarized and partisan than it has been since the Vietnam War or even since before the Civil War, solar is one of the few things that Americans seem to agree on.
Special Interests Are Fighting Americans’ Demand for Solar
But if solar is so popular, and it has gotten so practical, why doesn’t America use more of it?
The answer is clear to anyone who follows energy issues. Powerful special interests, led by monopoly electric utilities and oil and coal companies, have used their influence in government to stop or slow down the growth of solar power. To protect their profits, these powerful companies want to keep Americans stuck using dirty energy for decades to come.
It’s too bad, but not surprising, that dirty energy companies have found such a good ally in the Trump Administration. Together with utilities and fossil fuel interests, the Trump White House can certainly slow down the growth of solar and make Americans wait years more to get the clean energy they have shown that they want.
People who care about climate need to fight that. We need to stand up for Americans’ right to make, use, share and sell their own solar power. And to stand up successfully against the massive power of utilities and oil and coal companies in Washington, DC and in statehouses across the country, we’re going to need more than progressives and Democrats. We’re going to need help from conservatives and Republicans.
To Win, Solar Needs Government. And that Means Republicans.
And to answer your question…yes, solar can’t win without government. You can’t just say “To hell with Washington! Solar doesn’t need those jerks.”
It’s true that a home solar array is just another home improvement product like vinyl siding or a new roof that you can get from a local contractor. It’s also true that a solar panel is just another tool like a hammer or a circular saw that you can pick up at Home Depot. You don’t need much help from government to buy a hammer or get vinyl siding installed on your home. So, why does the government need to be involved with solar?
It’s because solar has one crucial difference. Unlike a wall’s worth of vinyl siding, a solar array is not meant to be a stand-alone collection of hardware that that you just bolt on and forget. Except for very small applications, like to run outdoor lighting, solar panels are only useful if they’re part of a larger energy system that goes far beyond your own building.
For most uses of solar power at homes and businesses, you need a way to use solar panels effectively for affordable, reliable electric power. And today, that usually means tying the panels into the electrical grid.
Battery storage is growing quickly, allowing more solar users to potentially go off grid, if they have a special need for the extra hassle and expense. But today most rooftop solar installations are still hooked up to the electrical grid. It’s easier and more affordable.
Even as batteries get even cheaper in the future, most home and business solar arrays will probably still be hooked up to the grid for decades to come. Grid-tying your solar panels makes them much more valuable. It means that you can sell your excess power back to the grid and make your solar system much more profitable. It also means that the grid can serve as your backup in case you occasionally need more power than your own solar panels produce or in case your solar panels temporarily go down.
When you hook your solar panels up to the grid, then your solar array becomes part of a highly regulated energy marketplace.
And that marketplace currently gives unfair advantages to dirty energy companies. Everybody’s heard about the lopsided subsidies for oil drilling and coal mining vs the puny subsidies for installing solar. We’ve also heard about the monopoly that most utilities get by law to exclude competitors from their service area.
A Competitive Advantage for Dirty Energy: It Gets to Pollute for Free
But more important than both of these is that the market usually lets dirty energy release greenhouse gas pollution for free. This puts solar and all clean energy at a huge disadvantage.
So, for solar to really grow in the United States, we need to do more than level the playing field for subsidies or dethrone monopolies for electricity service. We need to make dirty energy pay for carbon pollution. Only then will the market be fair for solar power.
Making the energy marketplace fair is a function of government — partially at the state level but primarily in Washington, DC. It’s about making better rules for the game. And the players can’t change the rules. Only the rule maker can. And in the energy game, the rule maker is the U.S. federal government.
And under Trump so far, the rules have all been set the wrong direction, in favor of dirty energy and against solar. So, Americans who want more solar need to find a way around that.
If the White House and leaders in Congress are going to shill for the dirty energy companies who helped put them in office, ordinary conservatives need to hold their leaders accountable. Those conservative voters are the only people that GOP leaders will listen to.
It was the clear desire of ordinary conservative voters for their legislators to take climate change seriously that has helped bring 35 Republicans into the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus in the first year of the group’s existence.
Heaven knows that the White House and Congress don’t care much about what the left wants. From the Climate March to the Women’s March to the Antifa, left-wing activist groups can march down the National Mall every weekend and not make any difference at all on policies of a federal government where Republicans control both the Executive and the Legislative branches.
The left alone can’t make solar into America’s top energy source. To do that, progressives and conservatives are going to have to work together.
The Killer App for Solar
The best solution to boost solar would be for the federal government to put a price on carbon. That would make dirty energy relatively more expensive, sending consumers to clean energy for price alone.
A price on carbon, especially if presented as a fee on fossil fuels at the source, is not as crazy as you might think, as long as it’s not perceived as a new tax that adds a new burden to American families. The way to do that is to make the carbon fee “revenue neutral,” that is, to refund all proceeds back to households, as a dividend check. Under a common proposal for a carbon fee with a refund, three out of four of American households would come out ahead financially — they’d get more back in their dividend check than the extra amount they pay each month for more expensive fossil fuels.
That’s the idea behind the revenue-neutral carbon-fee-and-dividend promoted now by both traditional climate activists including Al Gore and climatologist James Hansen along with conservatives led by former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker III. See conservative Ted Halstead explain how it would work and why a carbon fee is the most powerful climate solution in a popular TED Talk video.
Making something as big as a carbon fee into law will take more than just the usual suspects on clean energy of greens, progressives, and solar company trade groups. It will take conservatives too.
But in today’s nasty, polarized political environment, it’s hard enough for liberals and conservatives to have Thanksgiving dinner together without coming to blows. It seems that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum don’t want to listen to each other much anymore. They just want to shout at each other.
How American Patriotism Can Be Solar’s Best Hope
To solve this problem I decided I needed to write a book that would bring conservatives and progressives together around the values that we all still share, even in today’s cynical age: freedom and opportunity.
I interviewed dozens of people across the political spectrum and found out that they all like solar, but for different reasons.
Progressives, as we know, want to save the earth from climate hell.
Believe it or not, many conservatives also accept climate science and are embarrassed by the climate denial at the top of the Republican party. But even conservatives who care about the environment tend to love solar for other reasons: national security, family autonomy, fiscal responsibility.
Solar power is no longer for greens and liberals anymore. More and more people on the right, including Republican lawmakers in my conservative home state of Virginia for example, also want America to use more solar power.
All this and more went into my book The Solar Patriot: A Citizen’s Guide to Helping America Win Clean Energy Independence, which just came out in January 2018.
In the book, I appeal to a value that still motivates most Americans, especially conservatives: patriotism.
I know what Dr. Johnson has to say about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel. And I know that many on the left or in the climate and clean energy movements are skeptical of anything that seems to be America First or My Country Right or Wrong. Or that sounds like Trump.
But militarists, jingoists and Trump fans don’t own patriotism in America. There’s actually a long tradition of progressive patriotism in our country, going back before the Civil War, and supporting rights for women, African-Americans, workers, and other groups, along with environmental protection.
And whether you’re comfortable with patriotism or not, if you look at how Americans think, you have to admit that patriotism works. Americans fly the flag more than any people on earth.
“Saving the world” is just too big and abstract for most Americans to get worked up about. Ever since the famous “Blue Marble” photo of the Earth from outer space was taken by Apollo in 1972, the environmental movement has reminded Americans that we’re all part of one finite “spaceship Earth.” Al Gore has talked about how much he was touched by this image of a globe without borders when it first came out. The image has inspired many other eco-minded folks over the decades.
Unfortunately, among ordinary Americans, 40 years of this save-the-Earth approach has failed to inspire deep feeling.
Maybe people in other countries have more global awareness and feel more global citizenship. But here, if there’s anyplace that Americans want to save, it’s America.
After all, few homeowners outside of Berkeley or Charlottesville fly the global peace flag over their front porches. No fan at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park would be caught dead singing the “Internationale” before a baseball game. And school kids don’t recite the UN Charter before class.
The flag most often seen from an American’s front porch is Old Glory. We also love to fly the flag at work and on our cars, while wearing it on our baseball caps, T shirts, shorts, socks, shoes, and swimsuits. You’ll also find the Stars and Stripes on our boxers and briefs, our bras and our panties. We sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” badly, before ball games and whenever else we can. And our kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Star Spangled Solar
So, since Americans still love patriotism, why not wrap yourself in the flag to spread solar power?
There’s nothing dishonest or manipulative about that. If you think of patriotism as love of your country, then what could be more patriotic today than helping America go solar, saving our climate, creating jobs, enhancing our national security and more?
And if a new generation of patriots can help America go solar, then we’ll be doing about the best thing that we can do for the rest of the world today.
“Our cause is the cause of mankind,” as George Washington said of the American Revolution.
That revolution did in fact change the world, kicking off a series of revolutions across Europe and the Americas that transformed a world of monarchies and colonies into a world of independent republics.
Today, America’s solar revolution could have just as big an impact. Today, the cause of helping America go solar is also the cause of humankind. See what one leading American advocate of rooftop solar has to say:
Democracy, patriotism, and rooftop solar go hand in hand and Erik Curren makes the case with simple, easy-to-understand stories from the front line of the modern-day battle for energy independence. Curren highlights parallels between today’s fights and some of the most iconic stories from American history. This book is a great introduction to one of the most important issues of our time.
Executive Director, Solar United Neighbors
I hope you’ll check out The Solar Patriot and then enlist in our peaceful Continental Army of American patriots who want to help the world by helping America overthrow the tyranny of dirty energy and achieve solar independence.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice