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04.26.2011 - 08:58PM
Renewable & Alternative Energy
By CSRwire Contributing Writer Francesca Rheannon
Bringing affordable solar power to the masses is a critical piece of protecting the planet.
When I take a walk through the woods from my house in the Hamptons, I pass several homes along the path with large solar arrays on their roofs or installed in their yards. I had to laugh, therefore, when I watched a video of Van Jones' speech to some 10,000 youth climate activists at the recent Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C.
Jones was making the point that the high cost of solar power means "wealthy people have the solar panels while the poor people pay the big energy bills" when he added that the rich live under trees in the shade, while poor people live in neighborhoods where the sun beats down on their houses.
It was an apt metaphor for our topsy-turvy energy policy that rewards the profits-bloated energy giants - all heavily invested in dirty fuels - with huge and ongoing subsidies while leaving the struggling solar sector scrambling for crumbs that threaten to evaporate year after year.
Jones, who founded Green For All to bring good green jobs to low-income communities in the U.S., argued for affordable solar energy as a form of distributive justice, saying, with solar panels on their roofs, not only would poor people pay less for energy, they could actually earn money by selling power to utilities. That would allow them to "put food on the table."
But he also made a crucial connection when he said, "The Earth can't afford for poor people not to have solar panels." Whether in Oakland, California or the Okavango Delta in southern Africa, bringing clean power from the sun to those who need it is fundamental to solving the climate crisis. By 2030, developing nations will use 70 per cent more energy than developed nations. And, with fuel costs skyrocketing, the middle class losing ground and ranks of the poor swelling, making energy affordable in the U.S. - the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world - could significantly help cut global carbon emissions.
The cost of solar is already coming down. Solar panels are 100 times cheaper than in the 1970s. But the cost of solar isn't at parity with fossil power--yet. One company working hard to remedy this is Chinese solar giant, Suntech, the world's largest producer of solar panels.
Suntech's VP of Marketing Wei-Tai Kwok told CSRwire, "We're targeting to reach retail grid parity in 50% of world markets by 2015. In other words, it will cost less to install panels and generate solar electricity than to buy electricity from the grid, without government subsidies." The company figures it can do that through a combination of technological innovation and achieving economies of scale. "We will continue to invest in solar R&D and increase production scale to make solar affordable everywhere under the sun," said Wei-Tai Kwok.
But even if retail parity per kwH is reached, poor- and middle-income households in the U.S. face a daunting barrier: the upfront cost of installing solar. That's why it will take more than technological change - important as that is in bringing down costs - to bring solar energy to every home.
So how can we accomplish this? Some are turning to the power of social networks. "Crowdfunding," for example. At Power Shift, Van Jones announced a new initiative in Oakland to bring jobs and clean energy to the economically challenged city. Intended to be a pilot program for replication around the country, Solar Mosaic Oakland is a partnership of community and business leaders that will use the power of the Internet to raise funds for solar energy - and the jobs installing it - in the community.
Another model that's spreading is enabling homeowners (or landlords) to rent solar power installations, instead of buying them. For example, SolarCity claims its SolarLease can begin saving consumers money on their utility bill "from the very first day." (Although the amount saved depends on how much was spent before going solar.) One of the biggest companies in the business, it has expanded operations from the West Coast to states in the East, including New York and Massachusetts.
Another way is community solar for clustered housing, such as coops, co-housing communities, condominiums and apartment complexes. GeoGenix in New Jersey is one company able to get the costs down for customers by giving them a package deal: sweeping into a complex to put solar on all the buildings. That's what they did for one 55 and over community in New Jersey. The community saved even more by taking advantage of federal and state support: a federal energy tax credit of 30% of the net cost and New Jersey's Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) - tradable certificates earned each time a system generates 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity.
And speaking of support, getting banks to give homeowners low-interest loans for installing solar - and making it easy to obtain them - is something else government could do to nudge the banking industry in the right direction. Europe - especially Germany - has simplified financing through the use of feed-in tariffs.
But there's so much more government could do to bring solar power to its people. Many in the environmental community argue subsidies for fossil fuel companies should go instead toward funding clean energy development. I agree. But those subsidies are in the many billions of taxpayers' dollars. Why not give some of it back to taxpayers by paying for or subsidizing residential solar power? (It could be graduated according to need.)
It would be deficit-neutral, create jobs, boost disposable income (by decreasing energy costs), support (clean energy) business - and cut carbon emissions. A win-win-win-win-win solution.
A recent study showed that the more homes in a community that install solar power, the more other homes decide to do the same thing - in other words, solar power is "contagious." So if government helped to bring solar power to the masses, why, even rich folks might follow suit. That's a kind of trickle-up economics that benefits all.
About Francesca Rheannon
Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility's podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca's work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.
This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.
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