solar power

Empowering the World

ONE OF THE most destabilizing facts of the last five years is this: The price of a solar panel has fallen 75 percent. The engineers have done their job, and that offers many possibilities.

We usually look at what the developed countries are doing with renewable energy, such as the fact that there were days during summer 2014 when Germany was generating three quarters of its power from solar panels (Germany!). But the most amazing miracles—and it doesn’t really stretch the word “miracle”—are happening in the poorest places, where for the very first time lights are blazing on.

Take rural Bangladesh, where fossil fuel has barely penetrated  in the 200 years of its ascendancy in the West. There’s no grid—at night it just goes dark. Until the last few years, when low-cost solar panels and innovative financing arranged by groups such as the Grameen Bank have allowed the very rapid spread of solar panels. How rapid? As many as 80,000 new connections a month, which is far more than in the United States. Fifteen million Bangladeshis live in solar-powered houses already, and the government is hoping to have the entire nation hooked up by 2020.

That means that kids can study at night. It also means that families don’t have to waste as much as 30 percent of their income on kerosene. It also means that they don’t have to breathe those kerosene fumes, and that the black soot the lamps throw off won’t be melting glaciers. It also means that everyone can charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous in Bangladesh. In fact, places like Bangladesh leapfrogged the whole telephone pole thing and went straight to mobile; now they’re leapfrogging coal and gas and going straight to solar.

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July 2015
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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.

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Top-Notch Theology (or Not)

Rev. Bryan Fischer, American Family Association

DIVINING GOD'S intent is incredibly easy—all you have to do is seek out his representatives here on earth, like Bryan Fischer, director of "issue analysis" for the American Family Association, "where he provides expertise on a range of public policy issues."

Indeed, Rev. Fischer speaks for the Lord on any number of topics (badness of gay people getting married, badness of Barack Obama who nurtures a "hatred of the white man," badness pretty much of anything that's changed since Fischer was born in 1951). But in the autumn, he offered the authoritative assurance that there was one thing God thought was really, really good: fossil fuel.

Fischer said that not using all the coal and gas and oil we could find was an affront to God—it would hurt God's feelings. In fact, he offered an analogy: Once "I opened up a birthday present that I didn't like, and I said it right out, 'Oh, I don't like those,'" he explained. "And the person that gave me the gift was there. And it just crushed that person. And you think, that's kind of how we're treating God when he's given us these gifts of abundant and inexpensive and effective fuel sources," Fischer added. "And we don't thank him for it and we don't use it. ... You know, God has buried those treasures there because he loves to see us find them."

That's really top-notch theology, as other similar top-notch theologians would attest. Dr. Calvin Beisner, for instance, is a founder of the Cornwall Alliance, the premier faith-based climate-change-denial operation on the planet. Sharing the microphone with Rev. Fischer, Rev. Beisner pointed out that not burning fossil fuel is really "an insult to God"—and that Jesus, too, wants us burning coal. If we didn't take advantage of all the flammable rocks on the planet, Beisner said, we would be like the "wicked and lazy steward" who was given talents by his master but simply buried them.

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