Future's So Bright

EARLIER THIS YEAR, 14 solar panels were installed on my roof. Each day since—in fact, multiple times a day—I've eagerly checked our online meters, as the sun replaces coal and nuclear plants as the provider of my home's electrical needs.

I've waited a long time for this. I attended my first energy conference in the late 1970s, when I joined several other students from the hunger action group at our Jesuit college, Seattle U., for the 20-hour van ride to Denver—even then, the connection between poverty and energy issues was clear.

That conference was one of several conducted by the U.S. Catholic bishops to gather input for what became a major and still-relevant document published in 1981 under the unassuming name "Reflections on the Energy Crisis." The statement noted that "solar power can help open the way to permanent energy security, pointing beyond the end of fossil fuels."

So last summer I was thrilled to sign a contract with a company called SolarCity, which installed the solar panels on my rooftop under a lease arrangement—they own the panels, and I buy solar power from them whenever the sun shines. And there's sure a lot of sunshine to tap: Every hour of daylight on earth, the sun releases the amount of energy consumed by the entire population of the planet in one year.

ENERGY industry deregulation over the past two decades made possible the emergence of new clean-energy companies like SolarCity. But it has come with quite a cost to consumers. For example, a report released in December by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power found that Texans have paid an extra $10.4 billion for electricity under deregulation.

Around the country, deregulation—which the Bush administration and groups like Enron claimed would lead to lower energy prices because of "free-market" competition—has led to similar increases; the rise in Texas' prices is around the national average. The report noted that deregulated sectors saw greater price increases than still-regulated rural electric co-ops and city-owned utilities. And, of course, it's harder to control the negative environmental practices of deregulated energy suppliers.

Nonetheless, for now at least, a deregulated energy world is the one we live in. And it's helped make residential solar a viable option for thousands so far—and potentially for millions in the near future. Because, as SolarCity CEO and cofounder Lyndon Rive told Fortune magazine in March, "given the option of paying more for dirty power or paying less for clean power, what would you take?"

Key to solar's success is investment—by consumers, by Wall Street, by government policy. In some ways it's a zero-sum game, especially in tight-budget times: We can choose one direction or the other, but not "all of the above." As Rive puts it, "every kilowatt ... that the solar industry installs is a kilowatt less that they [dirty-power utilities] need to install. ... And we don't need to invest into new fossil fuel based infrastructure. We can invest that into renewables." And, Rive explains, the growth potential is huge: "We could expand almost infinitely for the next 10 years just in the [14 states] that we are in without having saturation."

Despite the promise of the embryonic solar industry, solar power won't become a substantial part of our energy future unless we, as a society, choose to make it so. SolarCity succeeds with the help of a 30 percent federal tax credit, which will be reduced in 2017 to 10 percent, equal to the credit that fossil fuel gets. (Why we still subsidize fossil fuel is the billion-dollar question.) Germany, not a particularly sunny place, has the fastest-growing solar market in the world—because of government incentives.

There's nothing inevitable about the energy path we're on. We make choices—to run our society on fossil fuel, or not; to invest in more dirty energy through projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, or not; to support the conversion to solar and other renewables, or not. Every choice we make is a step toward continued fossil fuel dependency, or away from it. In this area, as much as any other, the ancient and familiar words of scripture ring hauntingly true: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." 

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.

Image: New family homes with solar panels, esbobeldijk / Shutterstock.com

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